The 31st Academy Awards, for the film year of 1958. The nominations were announced on February 23, 1959 and the ceremony held on April 6, 1959.
Best Picture: Gigi
- Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
- The Defiant Ones
- Separate Tables
- Auntie Mame
Most Surprising Omission: I Want to Live!
Best Eligible Film Not Nominated: The Seventh Seal
Best Eligible U.S. Film Not Nominated: Touch of Evil
Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years: #69
The Race: Even though it wouldn’t come out until September, the Oscar race was kicked off in March when Mike Todd was killed in his plane crash just after his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, had begun filming Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. That placed the Oscar eye squarely on Cat, which would get released to wonderful reviews in September. By that time, Gigi was already out and getting solid reviews and good box office. Tabloid gossip also enveloped Separate Tables as Deborah Kerr’s marriage disintegrated and it also managed to survive the scandals and emerge with solid reviews. Auntie Mame would eventually be the biggest earner of all the Best Picture contenders, coming in second on the year behind South Pacific, though most of that money wouldn’t arrive until 1959.
The actual awards race kicked off in December with the National Board of Review. They gave their Best Picture to The Old Man and the Sea, though they found room in their top 10 for Gigi, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Separate Tables. What they didn’t find room for was The Defiant Ones, which had some of the best reviews of the year and would promptly win Best Picture, Director and Screenplay from the New York Film Critics. The next group to chime is was the Golden Globes with their three different categories and 14 different nominees for Best Picture. Their more discerning list was their Best Director nominations, which included Gigi, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Defiant Ones, Separate Tables and I Want to Live. Of those five, four would earn a Directors Guild nomination, with Separate Tables being replaced by The Inn of the Sixth Happiness and all of them would end up with Writers Guild nominations. With Best Picture wins at the Globes for Gigi and The Defiant Ones (as well as a Comedy win for Auntie Mame), it looked like the five nominees were set.
The Results: Yet, somehow, Auntie Mame, without a DGA or WGA nomination managed to leap I Want to Live! and end up in the Best Picture race after all. It had won Best Picture and Best Actress at the Globes, but they were both for Comedy whereas, Live had been nominated for the more prestigious Best Picture – Drama, as well as Director and winning Best Actress – Drama. Live even was better placed among the Oscars, with nominations for Director and Screenplay while Mame had neither, yet Mame (which I do feel is a better film) had slipped in. Gigi and The Defiant Ones had tied with the most nominations (9), but Gigi had no acting nominations. Even so, Gigi would actually sweep, winning Vincente Minnelli the Best Director award he had failed to win with his 1951 Best Picture, An American in Paris, and making Gigi the biggest Oscar winner of all-time (until the next year).
- Director: Vincente Minnelli
- Writer: Alan Jay Lerner (from the novel by Colette)
- Producer: Arthur Freed
- Studio: MGM
- Stars: Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Louis Jourdan, Hermione Gingold, Eva Gabor
- Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography (Color), Scoring of a Musical Picture, Art Direction, Costume Design, Song (“Gigi”)
- Oscar Record: Most Wins (9) – broken in 1959; Most Wins with No Losses (9) – tied in 1987, broken in 2003
- Length: 116 min
- Genre: Musical
- Box Office Gross: $13.2 mil
- Release Date: 15 May 1958
- My Rating: **.5
- My Rank: #59 (year) / #437 (nominees) / #79 (winners)
- Nighthawk Nominations: Art Direction, Costume Design, Song (“I Remember It Well”)
The Film: It must have seemed creepy even then, a lecherous old man singing “Thank Heaven For Little Girls.” How could that possibly feel right? I mean, we are talking about Maurice Chevalier here. He’s not exactly the kindly old Grandpa type. Then there is Louis Jourdan, who seems to be in his thirties, but suddenly is supposed to be attracted to this young teenager. And exactly how old is Gigi anyway? With a face like Leslie Caron’s, it’s kind of hard to tell. She’s believable in the role, but not all that good. Neither is Jourdan for that matter. Chevalier is good, but of course, kind of creepy. That leaves Hermione Gingold as the one truly worthwhile performance in the film.
Of course, the performances aren’t really the big problem. As with any musical, so much rests on the music. And I suppose there are people who love this. But I don’t. In fact, I heartily dislike most of the songs in the film. There is one enjoyable song, “I Remember It Well,” with its charm and wit, but the rest of the film is a boring mess to be slogged through. The most egregious example is, of course, “Thank Heaven For Little Girls”, which I have never liked, even aside from the creepiness factor, but “Gigi” itself also irks me, namely because it actually won the Oscar. I have never been a particular fan of Lerner and Loewe outside of My Fair Lady and I think is a batch of some of their weakest songs.
But aside from the songs themselves, I just can’t bring myself to care about the characters. I have no use for the idle rich, for their whining about their lives and how their romances have problems. And here we have a young girl who suddenly is supposed to grow up and be married. I just don’t find myself believing a single minute of the story and when I’m forced to endure the songs on top of it? Well, I give up.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
- Director: Richard Brooks
- Writer: Richard Brooks / James Poe (from the play by Tennessee Williams)
- Producer: Lawrence Weingarten
- Studio: MGM
- Stars: Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives, Jack Carson, Judith Anderson
- Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Newman), Actress (Taylor), Cinematography (Color)
- Length: 108 min
- Genre: Drama
- Box Office Gross: $17.57 mil
- Release Date: 20 September 1958
- My Rating: ****
- My Rank: #106 (nominees)
- Nighthawk Nominations: Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Newman), Actress (Taylor), Supporting Actor (Ives), Editing, Art Direction
The Film: It’s strange to look back now and see how much this film actually had to overcome. Paul Newman had some success, but had yet to really have a breakout role. Burl Ives was still considered mainly a singer rather than an actor. Richard Brooks had yet to have a solid critical and commercial success. The play they were adapting had to be altered to remove the homosexuality that could be more explicitly mentioned on-stage and Williams’ last several plays on film had been heavily attacked by the Catholic Church. Even Elizabeth Taylor, a huge star coming off her first Oscar nomination, was in the midst of scandal, as her husband Mike Todd had just died as the film was starting and by the time the film was released she would be running off with Eddie Fisher, married to her friend Debbie Reynolds.
But looking at it in the rear view mirror, none of that seems imaginable now. Newman would earn his first Oscar nomination and become one of the biggest stars of the next two decades. Ives would win the Oscar for The Big Country because MGM would list him as a lead, but this is the film he should have won for and this is the film that proved he was an actor. Brooks would win an Oscar for his script for Elmer Gantry and earn back to back directing nominations in the mid 60’s, eventually earning him a spot on my top 100 Director list. Williams’ plays would have an easy path to film, with Suddenly Last Summer, Summer and Smoke, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and Sweet Bird of Youth all getting filmed in the next five years. And Elizabeth Taylor, while not winning the Oscar here, when she clearly deserved it, would win two more within a decade.
There is no question that there is some impact from the original play lost because of the cuts demanded by the times. Brick’s motivations seem a bit strange unless you want to simply read homosexuality into it. But that doesn’t negate the performances, the star making roles of Newman and Taylor. It doesn’t negate the fantastic direction by Brooks, or the great way in which he made use of that fantastic mansion. And the play still has power, the cutting dialogue between Brick and Maggie still something that will last forever. She might have had one Oscar nomination already, but this is the film that made Taylor an actress.
The Defiant Ones
- Director: Stanley Kramer
- Writer: Ned Young (writing as Nathan E. Douglas) / Harold Jacob Smith
- Producer: Stanley Kramer
- Studio: United Artists
- Stars: Sidney Poitier, Tony Curtis, Theodore Bikel, Cara Williams
- Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Poitier), Actor (Curtis), Supporting Actor (Bikel), Supporting Actress (Williams), Editing, Cinematography (Black-or-White)
- Length: 97 min
- Genre: Drama (Social)
- Release Date: 27 September 1958
- My Rating: ****
- My Rank: #5 (year) / #182 (nominees)
- Nighthawk Nominations: Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Poitier), Supporting Actor (Bikel), Supporting Actress (Williams), Cinematography, Sound, Sound Editing
The Film: The reviews at the time actually were pretty spot-on when it came to The Defiant Ones. They looked at it as a message picture, the kind of social drama that Stanley Kramer had delighted at making as a producer and which he would eventually thrive at as a director (to great box office, though to ever-diminishing critical reputation as the years went on). However, they also saw it is as good old-fashioned entertainment. It didn’t skimp on providing a good, enjoyable film to watch while it was focusing on getting its message across. In his later films, Kramer would have a harder time with the entertainment aspect of these films. But he never had a problem finding a social message and this one worked great.
The story got around for years that Robert Mitchum refused the Tony Curtis role because he didn’t want to be chained to a black man. The truth was that Mitchum had been on a chain gang in the South and didn’t believe that they would chain a black man and white man together and refused on that ground. Unfortunately, the more negative version got around, helped spread by Tony Curtis, a man whose own prejudices would be made clear in later Best Picture races. But it didn’t really matter if there was some fiction in the film. Hell, it was a film. The question was, would it be believable on film? And that issue is settled right at the start, when Theodore Bikel, as a County Sheriff, is asked why they’re chained together and he just kind of shrugs.
That shrug is part of the greatness of Bikel’s performance, which, though Oscar-nominated, would be lost in the focus on Poitier and Curtis. But he is magnificent and owns a much larger part of the story than people remember as the smart, determined, and most of all, decent man who must try to track these two outlaws down. Also great in a supporting role is Cara Williams as the desperately lonely woman who finally helps the two men get unchained from each other so that they can go their separate ways. She doesn’t care that Curtis is a convict and I’m not really sure she cares that much that Poitier is black. She just cares about not having to be lonely anymore.
Then, of course, there are the two leads. They are chained together and they must find a way to survive together through a lot of harrowing circumstances, including a river, a muddy pit and a lynch mob. How they get from the point where one of them would say to the other “I didn’t pull you out; I just kept you from pulling me in,” to that amazing ending is an incredible journey and while Poitier makes it into my top 5, Curtis isn’t really that far behind. This was the height of his career, right after Sweet Smell of Success and just before Some Like It Hot, the one stretch where he was really proving that he could act.
And of course I have to say a word about the script. It is a first-rate script and while it doesn’t win the Nighthawk Award, that’s because it’s going up against Ingmar Bergman for The Seventh Seal. But as I said before, it is a great message film while also providing first rate entertainment. The problem, of course, was that credited writer Nathan E. Douglas was really blacklisted writer Ned Young. So the big question was how the Academy would react. They still had the rule on the book that people who testified to being Communist or who refused to testify were not eligible for Oscars. Michael Wilson had no official nomination from 1956. Pierre Boulle was still getting screenplay credit for Bridge on the River Kwai. Then, finally, the Academy bent. “Experience has proven the bylaw to be unworkable and impractical to administer and enforce.” The rule was revoked on January 12, 1959, six weeks before the nominations. Hedda Hopper went screaming that people were unhappy, that Oscars would be returned. None were. On February 23, the script was nominated. On April 6, it won the Oscar. It didn’t matter to Stanley Kramer when he lost Best Director. “At least we beat the Blacklist,” he said. As far as the Academy was concerned, the Blacklist was over.
- Director: Delbert Mann
- Writer: Terrence Rattigan / John Gay (from the novel by Terrence Rattigan)
- Producer: Harold Hecht
- Studio: United Artists
- Stars: Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, David Niven, Deborah Kerr, Wendy Hiller
- Oscar Nominations: Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Niven), Actress (Kerr), Supporting Actress (Hiller), Scoring a Dramatic or Comedic Picture, Cinematography (Black-or-White)
- Length: 100 min
- Genre: Drama
- Box Office Gross: $7.40 mil
- Release Date: 18 December 1958
- My Rating: ***.5
- My Rank: #11 (year) / #255 (nominees)
- Nighthawk Nominations: Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Kerr), Supporting Actress (Hiller)
The Film: Terence Rattigan’s plays make for great drama on-stage. As the author of The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version and Separate Tables, he mastered the art of British dialogue and the way that they will talk around each other as much as talk to each other, and the painful separations within British society. They don’t make for great cinema, perhaps because it’s hard to escape the feeling that they are so staged. That’s not to say they are bad films. They are usually quite good, and certainly Separate Tables is no exception.
The strength of Separate Tables lies in two aspects of the film: the writing and the acting. The original play consisted of two one-act plays with one overlapping character. By combining them, allowing the characters in the two parts to interact, it heightens the drama and allows for a more interesting performance from Burt Lancaster, then if he had simply been in his story alone. Reportedly director Delbert Mann was upset with additional editing that Lancaster oversaw, but if Lancaster wasn’t as much in the other part of the story, it would lose some of its dramatic impact. His character brings a sense of outrage to the proceedings and allow the conclusion to flow directly from the actions, as opposed to feeling overly scripted.
Part of the other reason that the ending works as well as it does is the individual performances that add up to more then the sum of their parts. Of course, it does feel a little weird to talk about how good the performances were when David Niven won the Oscar for his and I don’t even consider him among my top 5 for the year. But he was actually very good in what was actually a tough year (my nominees include Orson Welles for Touch of Evil, Gunnar Bjornstrand for The Seventh Seal and Alec Guinness for The Horse’s Mouth in addition to Oscar nominees Newman and Poitier). Having recently re-watched Bridge on the River Kwai, it’s easy to see how Niven’s performance captures so well the concept of a man from a lower class trying to emulate a British officer. And of course there is Deborah Kerr, who is always magnificent and this is one of her best. Then there is Hiller, who while I don’t give her my award, she does come in second (to Bibi Andersson in The Seventh Seal) and she really is magnificent. Then there are those who did not actually receive nominations – Burt Lancaster, Gladys Cooper and Rita Hayworth. Lancaster helps anchor the film, by drawing together the two storylines in a more forceful manner than was done on stage, Cooper is impeccable as an uptight British society woman and Hayworth gives the only real acting performance of her entire career.
All in all, it is a very good film, one whose rank overall went up considerably rather than down and watching it again forced me to reconsider and move it from a *** film into the ***.5 category, just missing the top 10 and making it worthy of its Best Picture nomination.
- Director: Morton Da Costa
- Writer: Betty Comden / Adolph Green (from the novel by Patrick Dennis)
- Producer: Jack L. Warner
- Studio: Warner Bros.
- Stars: Rosalind Russell, Forrest Tucker, Peggy Cass, Coral Browne, Roger Smith
- Oscar Nominations: Picture, Actress (Russell), Supporting Actress (Cass), Editing, Cinematography (Color), Art Direction
- Length: 143 min
- Genre: Comedy
- Box Office Gross: $23.30 mil
- Release Date: 27 December 1958
- My Rating: ***
- My Rank: #52 (year) / #422 (nominees)
- Nighthawk Nominations: Actress (Russell)
The Film: I watched Auntie Mame on the same night that I watched You Can’t Take it With You and it seemed to me that they were two sides of the same coin. In both films, we have free spirits who want to encourage others to find the freedom of their spirits and of course, they succeed in the end. But the family in the Capra film has a more relaxed kind of freedom, one that truly is freedom of the soul. Auntie Mame herself wants you to free yourself from any sense of responsibility, to be rich and carefree and explore the world. “The world is a banquet and most poor fools are starving to death,” is her line. She wouldn’t understand the kind of freedom being offered to her from Grandpa Vanderhoff. So why was this film, essentially a celebration of how much fun it is to be rich and eccentric, so successful? After all, it was one of the biggest hits of the year and was nominated for 6 Oscars, including Best Picture. It’s not really because it’s a good film.
Because it’s not that good of a film, just squeaking into the *** category. It is not well written and certainly not well directed (because so much of the action takes place in Mame’s apartment, it feels very much like a filmed play – Da Costa would do much better a few years later when he directed The Music Man). It was nominated for Editing, but it was a terrible choice as it was way way too long (this kind of celebration doesn’t need to stretch much past the hour and a half mark, but it nearly hits the two and a half hour mark). It also, like so many other Best Picture nominees over the years, has a terrible performance throughout the first hour with the younger version of Patrick Dennis.
But what it does have going for it is Rosalind Russell. Over the years, Russell was nominated for 4 Oscars and she sadly never won (she also never lost at the Golden Globes , taking home 5). Her performance here is the glue that holds the film together (and might be why the later version, Mame, is so awful, because it doesn’t have her). Her wonderful carefree performance almost manages to overcome all the inane things that keep coming out of her mouth. And she, more than anything, is what keeps the film from sinking into hopeless mediocrity.