One of the magnificent shots towards the end of The Bridge on the River Kwai - the film that swept all the awards in 1957

The 30th Academy Awards, for the year 1957.  The nominations were announced on February 18, 1958 and the ceremony was held on March 26, 1958.

Best Picture:  The Bridge on the River Kwai

  • 12 Angry Men
  • Witness for the Prosecution
  • Sayonara
  • Peyton Place

Most Surprising Omission:  Wild is the Wind

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Paths of Glory

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Nominees:  #53

The Race: Though no one knew it, the race was pretty much over by New Year’s Eve, a good month and a half before the nominations were even announced.  But the two major critics groups had already named Bridge on the River Kwai their Best Picture choice before the year’s end, as well as Best Director and Best Actor and that pretty much ended the race.  When the Golden Globes were announced, four films were in the running for both Picture and Director: Bridge, 12 Angry Men, Witness for the Prosecution and Sayonara.  Then all four of those films were nominated by the Directors Guild and joined by Peyton Place, which had also earned a Writers Guild nomination.  Wild is the Wind had been nominated for Picture at the Globes and A Hatful of Rain for Director, but both were passed over by the DGA and the WGA and that was pretty much all she wrote.  Bridge kept winning and the nominees and winner were pretty set before the February 18 nominations.

The Results: They nominated three great films, one okay film and one piece of trash.  But they redeemed themselves by heaping award upon award upon the truly great film.  But they were also in the stretch of greatest films of all-time that failed to receive any nominations.  In the year after The Searchers and the year before Touch of Evil and The Seventh Seal, they completely ignored Paths of Glory and Sweet Smell of Success.  Because it was the first year since the Best Picture nominees were reduced to 5 in 1944 that all the directors came from nominated films, so it’s hard to point to a film that the Academy was screwing with.  They went with the DGA nominees and they gave the Oscar to the best film, so it’s really a pretty unremarkable contest.

One of the original movie posters for Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

The Bridge on the River Kwai

  • Director:  David Lean
  • Writer:  Michael Wilson / Carl Foreman  (script originally credited to Pierre Boulle, author of the original novel)
  • Producer:  Sam Spiegel
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Alec Guinness, William Holden, Sessue Hayakawa, Jack Hawkins, James Donald
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Guinness), Supporting Actor (Hayakawa), Editing, Cinematography, Score
  • Length:  161 min
  • Genre:  War  (World War II)
  • Release Date:  18 December 1957
  • Box Office:  $33.30 mil
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1 (year)  /  #13  (nominees)  /  #3  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Guinness), Supporting Actor (Hayakawa), Supporting Actor (Donald), Editing, Cinematography, Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Costume Design, Makeup

The Film:  The presence of the American played by William Holden in the film was just about the only thing that Carl Foreman came up with that is actually in the film, according to David Lean.  Lean said that Foreman’s script, which was later posthumously awarded the Oscar (in 1985) was utter rubbish and that he pretty much wrote the whole script.  He had trouble with writing for the American character though, so he brought in Michael Wilson to do all of that dialogue and the original credit was supposed to say “by Michael Wilson and David Lean.”  Sam Spiegel changed the credit to Pierre Boulle though and that was who originally won the Oscar.  The whole controversy ended up with Lean and Spiegel brandishing their Oscars at each other like swords at the Academy Awards.  (All of that courtesy of David Lean by Stephen M. Silverman)

Having that character in the film and especially having him played by William Holden adds a nice contrast that the book was lacking.  It’s true that there is a contrast between Colonel Nicholson, as brilliantly played by Alec Guinness, and Clifton, the doctor played by James Donald.  Certainly Clifton is the only character in the film capable of applying any reason to the whole endeavor, and it is his cry of “Madness,” that continues to echo as the end titles play on screen.  But by having Commander Shears, played by William Holden, we get the cynical American approach — a different, more cavalier way of reacting to life.  Holden himself is a more relaxed actor than Guinness and while he might not be as good (Guinness is one of the greatest actors to ever make a career onscreen and this performance is the one that tops it all, rightfully winning every award), he holds his own in all of his screen time.  His presence allows Colonel Nicholson to get a good look at his face at the end of the film and come to his sudden realization.  It’s not the young British soldier who dies in front of him.  It’s the knowledge that the cynical, carefree American would risk all of this to come back.

This film was the first to sweep the Best Picture awards, winning the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics, the Golden Globe, the BAFTA and finally the Oscar.  It also achieved a clean sweep in Best Director and Best Actor as well and was the biggest box office hit of the year (and still ranks in the top 80 all-time when adjusted for inflation).  It was the first film that Lean made on an epic scale, the kind of thing that he would later become known for.  Many critics rebelled against these giant films, but his last five films were nominated for 43 Oscars and won 23.  And those same five films at the Nighthawk Awards?  60 nominations.  40 awards.  Because they were that great.  Many Oscar winners really aren’t all the great.  Lean’s films were.  You can read more about Bridge here.

one of the highest rated films of all-time: 12 Angry Men (1957)

12 Angry Men

  • Director:  Sidney Lumet
  • Writer:  Reginold Rose  (from his teleplay)
  • Producer:  Henry Fonda  /  Reginald Rose
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Henry Fonda, Ed Begley, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Warden, E.G. Marshall
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay
  • Length:  96 min
  • Genre:  Drama (Courtroom)
  • Release Date:  13 April 1957
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3 (year)  /  #123  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Fonda), Supporting Actor (Cobb), Supporting Actor (Begley), Editing

The Film:  Right now, 12 Angry Men sits at the #8 spot all-time on the IMDb list.  Is it really worthy of the top 10 all-time?  It is a great film, a film that implores for the importance of social justice when making the choice about the life of another person.  It deals with the question of economic justice on a more subtle level.  It is a great courtroom drama anchored by one of the great Henry Fonda performances that always made him seem like the person you wanted for your father.  But in the top 10?  I suspect that it, like The Shawshank Redemption, sits so high, not because it is great (and it is great, but neither film is worthy of such a level it sits at on that list), but because there aren’t people who oppose it.  Most great films have at least some people who want to bring it down, who claim that in some way they aren’t great films.  But 12 Angry Men and Shawshank don’t have detractors like that.

I do believe that this is a great film, a solid **** film, even if I don’t think it quite up to the top level of film history.  One scene in particular stood out when I watched it again, a scene that also stuck with Roger Ebert when he wrote it up for his Great Films series: “Finally Juror No. 10 (Ed Begley) begins a racist rant (“You know how these people lie. It’s born in them. They don’t know what the truth is. And let me tell you, they don’t need any real big reason to kill someone, either…”) As he continues, one juror after another stands up from the jury table and walks away, turning his back. Even those who think the defendant is guilty can’t sit and listen to Begley’s prejudice. The scene is one of the most powerful in the movie.”  That is what Ebert says about it.  But I noticed something more.  As all of those men start to stand up and look away, the camera continually pulls back (not an easy trick in the small jury room), until we can see all 12 men and none of the other 11 will look at Juror No. 10.  But then, Juror No. 8, played by Henry Fonda, begins to speak.  At the start of the film, he is the only one who thinks the kid might not be guilty.  Not that he necessarily thinks that the kid is innocent.  But he keeps saying that it’s possible the kid is innocent.  He has that reasonable doubt and he wants to try and let the others see what the doubt is, because the entire concept of the American criminal justice system rides on such doubts.  This time, as Fonda begins to speak, the camera begins to move in, and by the end of the shot, he is the only person that we see.  We have retreated from ugly prejudice.  We have focused in on logic and reason.

We don’t ever know if the kid is guilty or innocent.  We don’t get much of a glimpse of him and I always seem to remember him as being black, when he really is just a poor immigrant.  I remembered Begley’s speech as being about racial prejudice (“Why do you believe her story when you don’t believe his?  She’s one of them.” Fonda says to Begley early in the film), but it’s poor people that he’s railing against, the poor immigrants that have been such a vital part of this country for nearly two centuries now.  This film is a stark reminder of one of the biggest problems in this country today.  If the United States were to apply for entrance into the European Union it would be denied because it still has the death penalty.  And the system is fraught with too many problems.  As one quote, that seems to sum up so much of the film goes: “You’re talking about a few seconds.  Nobody can be that accurate.”  “I think that testimony that can put a boy into the electric chair should be that accurate.”

Agatha Christie via Billy Wilder: Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Witness for the Prosecution

  • Director:  Billy Wilder
  • Writer:  Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz  (from the play by Agatha Christie)
  • Producer:  Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, Elsa Lanchester
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Actor (Laughton), Supporting Actress (Lanchester), Editing, Sound
  • Length:  116 min
  • Genre:  Drama (Courtroom)
  • Release Date:  December, 1957
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #7 (year)  /  #173 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Laughton), Supporting Actress (Lanchester), Score

The Film:  So how was it that Billy Wilder wasn’t nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay?  In this decade, he won an Oscar (among 4 nominations) for writing and won an incredible 4 Writers Guild Awards (among 6 nominations), yet both groups passed over the script for Witness for the Prosecution to nominate the melodramatic Sayonara and the terrible Peyton Place.  Is it because it felt like the play?  Because it adds a lot to the play, loosens it up, allows the action to flow better, and added the character of the nurse, who is so wonderfully played by Elsa Lanchester.

Lanchester and Laughton were married to each other and it’s rare to see spouses play so well together on screen.  Sometimes you get something like Liz Taylor and Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut, but you’re more likely to get such cinematic travesties as Liz Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatra (or The Sandpiper) and Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Far and Away.  Lanchester and Laughton are so wonderful on screen, they play off each other so perfectly (especially the scene where she lights his cigar and the finale), it harkens back to when he was Henry VIII and she was Anne of Cleves and managed to keep her head when all about her were losing theirs.

Then there is Marlene Dietrich.  Dietrich had a long, wonderful career and this might be the best acting job she ever did and she fully expected to get an Oscar nomination.  She was far better than three of the actual nominees (Liz Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Lana Turner), but didn’t get nominated.  I don’t nominate her either but I take into account such foreign performances as Eva Dahlbeck (in Smiles of a Summer Night) and Giulietta Masina (in Nights of Cabiria) and she just falls out of the running.  But she is fully convincing in every scene and is so wonderful with her Cockney accent that the ads centered around not revealing the ending.

In some ways, this is Wilder’s most surprising film.  It felt more like a Hitchcock film (Hitchcock himself said he was often congratulated on it) and it was made during a period when Wilder had absolutely established himself as a comedic film-maker (only 1 of his 11 remaining films would be a Drama).  But it has great acting and is great courtroom drama.  It is one of those films that absolutely breaks down when you actually step back and look at it from a legal standpoint, but when watching it, you believe it all the way through.  And that’s what great courtroom dramas do.

at least this time he didn't play a Japanese: Marlon Brando in Sayonara (1957)

Sayonara

  • Director:  Joshua Logan
  • Writer:  Paul Osborn  (from the novel by James Michener)
  • Producer:  William Goetz
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Marlon Brando, Patricia Owens, Red Buttons, Miyoshi Umeki, James Garner, Miiko Taka, Ricardo Montalban
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Brando), Supporting Actor (Buttons), Supporting Actress (Umeki), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction
  • Length:  147 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Romance)
  • Release Date:  5 December 1957
  • Box Office:  $26.30 mil
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #49 (year)  /  #408 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Supporting Actor (Buttons), Supporting Actress (Umeki)

The Film:  Sayonara is in the middle of the pack when it comes to an inter-racial love story.  It wasn’t the first, wouldn’t be the last, isn’t the best, but isn’t nearly the worst.  It is more unique when it comes to the object of the story: American servicemen and Japanese women in the years following the second World War.  It also had acting going for it, which was good, because it didn’t really have that much of a script going for it.  It was based on one of those overwrought (though, surprisingly not overlong) novels by James Michener.  Michener’s specialty was sweeping sagas and this was a bit different – still a kind of travelogue, but less sweeping (it was also based somewhat on Michener’s own experiences).

One of the strangest things about it is Brando’s performance itself.  When Marlon Brando first came on the scene, he was unlike any other actor around.  He had an amazing animal magnetism and he inspired an entire generation in how film acting is done.  But then he started making choices that were a bit odd, like singing in Guys and Dolls and the Southern accent he decided to try on for Sayonara.  Director Joshua Logan hated it at the start, but then later claimed that it was the key to the whole film.  But the problem is that the accent actually makes you notice the performance, something Brando hadn’t really done before.  He actually seemed like he was acting and his performance suffered for it.

Luckily, of course, he was strongly supported.  Who can say how much the people working with him gained from Brando, but the fact is that six actors and actresses won Oscars in supporting roles opposite Brando in his first decade in the business.  Buttons and Umeki are both very good in their roles as the more realistic inter-racial couple, the ones who can not bring themselves to be parted from each other.

Sayonara is one of those films, like Friendly Persuasion from the year before, that seems to be made to get Oscar nominations.  It had a bit of a social message, had a major director, had big stars, but when looked at with some historical perspective, isn’t much more than an average film with some strong acting and a fairly unbelievable romance at its center.

soap opera trash as Oscar nominee: Peyton Place (1957)

Peyton Place

  • Director:  Mark Robson
  • Writer:  John Michael Hayes  (from the novel by Grace Metalious)
  • Producer:  Jerry Wald
  • Studio:  20th Century Fox
  • Stars:  Lana Turner, Lee Philips, Diane Varsi, Arthur Kennedy, Russ Tamblyn, Hope Lange, Mildred Dunnock
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Turner), Supporting Actor (Kennedy), Supporting Actor (Beymer), Supporting Actress (Varsi), Supporting Actress (Lange), Cinematography
  • Length:  157 min
  • Genre:  Drama (Melodrama)
  • Release Date:  13 December 1957
  • Box Office:  $25.60 mil
  • My Rating:  **
  • My Rank:  #66 (out of 66 – year)  /  #462 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Supporting Actress (Lange)

The Film:  It’s really only appropriate that Peyton Place became a prime-time soap opera.  After all, that’s really what it was in the first place.  The novel became a best seller, not because of any perceived literary merit, but simply because of its ability to cause a scandal.  It had all the lurid tales of melodrama that could be expected from a soap opera and compounded it with the fact that much of it was based on Grace Metalious’ neighbors (which didn’t win her any friends).  The novel was a gossipy piece of literary trash and the film was just the same.  There was never going to be hope for a good film to come out of this.  So why did the Academy think otherwise?

Well, there was the acting, for one thing.  While only one of the acting performances was truly Oscar worthy (Kennedy), only one of them was particularly bad (Varsi).  It had a large ensemble cast that worked together well and actors have always made up the largest voting block of the Academy (even if they did nominate Varsi instead of Mildred Dunnock, who earned a Golden Globe nomination).  The other one is the box office.  Lana Turner was a big star at the time and the film was a huge success, the third biggest film of the year and the Academy has often had the habit of rewarding financial success for mediocre films.

The film wants to be the kind of expose of a small town that would make people sit up and notice.  It wanted to strip away the veneer of fifties smalltown America and show it to be full of hypocrites and liars, murderers and sexual perverts.  But it really doesn’t do any of that, because, it isn’t very good and it isn’t very perceptive.  It knows next to nothing about teenagers, very little about sex and not much more about anything else.  I hadn’t liked it much the first time I saw it, but I was stunned on re-watching it at how bad it truly is.

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