"Shut up and deal." That wonderful ending to The Apartment (1960)

The 33d annual Academy Awards, for the film year of 1960.  The nominations were announced on February 27, 1961 and the awards ceremony was held on April 17, 1961.

Best Picture:  The Apartment

  • Sons and Lovers
  • Elmer Gantry
  • The Sundowners
  • The Alamo

Most Surprising Omission:  Spartacus

Best Film Not to Be Nominated:  The Virgin Spring

Best U.S. Film Not to Be Nominated:  Spartacus

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #55

The Race: Several of the big Oscar contenders began to come out during the summer.  In a wave of critical acclaim came the releases of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and two films from controversial literary best-sellers: Elmer Gantry and Sons and Lovers.  The fall brought Inherit the Wind, a fictionalized version of the Scopes Trial and Stanley Kubrick’s epic Spartacus, both written by formerly blacklisted writers.  But the biggest movie of the year was John Wayne’s directorial debut: The Alamo, bearing a hefty $12 million price tag.

Oscar Dearest spends several pages describing the ad campaign that John Wayne waged to earn a nomination for Best Picture for The Alamo.  Wayne felt he was owed an Oscar and felt it was unpatriotic for his film to be denied, so he hired the same publicist that had “created the hysteria over David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind (largely by publicizing the search for someone to play Scarlett O’Hara)”, Russell Birdwell (p 120).  The ads were over-whelming and they were there every day with the hint that if you didn’t vote for the film, you were unpatriotic.  Dick Williams, entertainment editor of the Los Angeles Mirror, replied, saying “One can be the most ardent of American patriots and still think The Alamo was a mediocre movie.”  But Oscar Dearest seems to be of two minds on the film, commenting on one page: “The Alamo opened to reviews that could only be described as ‘lukewarm,’ by Wayne fans, or derisive, by more honest movie-goers,” followed two pages later by saying “There is some evidence that the campaign may not have been necessary.  The Wayne-directed movie was generally respected for his deft handling of the colossal battle scene.”  The former seems more accurate, as one columnist commented after it was nominated, “It seems more people voted for The Alamo than have seen it,” and Wayne’s directing wasn’t good enough to earn him a nomination.

The early awards groups didn’t much care for Wayne’s film.  The National Board of Review kicked things off by giving Best Picture and Director to Sons and Lovers.  The New York Film Critics followed with the same, though they couldn’t make up their minds, so The Apartment was a co-winner in both categories (and won Best Screenplay outright).  Next up was the Directors Guild and even with 14 nominees that would be narrowed down to 5 finalists and one winner (Billy Wilder), they couldn’t find any room for Wayne.  Next up was the Golden Globes and the big films were The Apartment (winner of Picture, Actor, Actress), Spartacus (winner of Picture – Drama), Elmer Gantry (nominated for Picture and Director, winner of Actor) and Sons and Lovers (nominated for Picture and winner of Director).  Fred Zinnemann’s The Sundowners was slowly picking up momentum, having won Best Actor at the NBR, Best Actress at the NYFC and earning nominations for Zinnemann from the DGA and the Globes.

The Results: All of Wayne’s publicity paid off as The Alamo was in the final five instead of Spartacus.  Joining it were the other expected nominees: The Apartment, Sons and Lovers, The Sundowners and Elmer Gantry (Psycho had to make do with Alfred Hitchcock’s fifth and final nomination among its four nominations).  The Apartment had a leading 10 nominations.  It took off and never looked back.

In the meantime, the Writers Guild handed out their own awards with The Apartment taking home Comedy and Elmer Gantry winning Drama.

On Oscar night itself The Apartment took home 5 awards, becoming the first Original Screenplay nominee to take home Best Picture and making Billy Wilder the first person to ever win three Oscars in a single night.

Billy Wilder was nominated 5 times for Best Director in the fifties and didn't win any. In 1960, he won Picture, Director and Screenplay for The Apartment.

The Apartment

  • Director:  Billy Wilder
  • Writer:  Billy Wilder  /  I.A.L. Diamond
  • Producer:  Billy Wilder
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Jack Kruschen
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen, Actor (Lemmon), Actress (MacLaine), Supporting Actor (Kruschen), Editing, Cinematography (Black-and-White), Sound, Art Direction – Set Direction (Black-and-White)
  • Length:  125 min
  • Genre:  Comedy (Romantic)
  • Release Date:  15 June 1960
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #36  (nominees)  /  #16  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Lemmon), Actress (MacLaine), Supporting Actor (Kruschen), Editing

The Film:  Great films live on within each other.  Scorsese could tell you that.  So could Tarantino.  But they don’t always live on in the way we expect.  When Billy Wilder saw Brief Encounter, the wonderful David Lean film about an adulterous couple he came away thinking about the man whose apartment they were borrowing for their affair.  This eventually lead to him writing a script about a young man loaning out his apartment to various higher-ups in his office for their own adulterous trysts.  But The Apartment would lead to other things in the same way.  When Cameron Crowe went to work on Jerry Maguire, it was The Apartment that was giving him inspiration.  He wanted to write a romantic comedy that also had a serious side, that wasn’t just flat out laughs.  It involved a couple who had met at work.  It might seem like a spurious connection, but Crowe will be the first to tell you that he kept going back to The Apartment.  He even tried to convince Billy Wilder to play Jerry’s mentor, the sports agent Dickie Fox.

There is so much to admire about The Apartment.  It is a smart, funny, interesting, touching, romantic film, all at the same time.  It contains two unbelievably perfect performances from the leads of Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, two sad, lonely people who deserve to be happy together rather than so miserable apart.  It is intelligent about the way business works, about how people get promoted and what people will do to get ahead.  It is touching in the in the interactions between C.C. Baxter, the poor schlub played by Lemmon and Jack Kruschen playing his doctor neighbor.  Baxter doesn’t much care what they think about him, but he will do anything to save the reputation of a woman that he clearly loves, even if she doesn’t know it yet.  Then there is Fred MacMurray.  It should come as no surprise that this is the second best performance of his career, given that his best was also directed by Billy Wilder, a director who could take a mediocre actor and turn them into an Oscar winner.  It is interesting because these are people we could have known and we understand how they think and why they think.  We want them to be happy together because they both deserve it.  We feel it deeply when Mr. Baxter is punched out by Ms. Kubilek’s brother.  We are touched when he remembers to take all the blades out of his razor.

Then there is the ending.  Wilder is so perfect at how he ends his films that when I covered him in my Top 100 Directors series, I made a list of 5 great examples of Wilder endings.  This is yet another one.  Because he says exactly what he should say, what we’ve been waiting to hear him say.  And she says exactly what she should say.  In the published version of the screenplay, it then says “And that’s about it.  Story-wise.”  And that’s right.  We don’t need a sentimental kiss or even an acknowledgment.  It’s gone as far as it should and it ends.

And this is perhaps the final word on this film.  In the Introduction to Conversations with Wilder, Cameron Crowe relates the following scene from their first meeting:

Finally Wilder picked up the pen to sign my one-sheet.  Wilder regarded the poster like an old friend.  “The Apartment,” he said.  “Good picture.”

“My favorite,” I said.

“Mine too,” he said, as if the decision was final.

Sinclair Lewis satire becomes Oscar gold: Elmer Gantry (1960)

Elmer Gantry

  • Director:  Richard Brooks
  • Writer:  Richard Brooks  (from the novel by Sinclair Lewis)
  • Producer:  Bernard Smith
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, Arthur Kennedy, Shirley Jones
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Lancaster), Supporting Actress (Jones), Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedic Picture
  • Length:  146 min
  • Genre:  Drama (Literary Adaptation)
  • Release Date:  7 July 1960
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #11  (year)  /  #219  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Lancaster), Supporting Actress (Jones), Costume Design

The Film:  Sinclair Lewis was part of that list of great American writers of the 2nd level.  He’s not up with Faulkner or Fitzgerald or Roth or Morrison.  But he does belong on the list with Cheever and Dos Passos and Malamud.  Yet at the Academy, a plainly American institution that, while acknowledging films from other countries, has always maintained an American attitude, he is the only American author to ever have three different novels made into Best Picture nominees.  There are British authors who have done it (Dickens, Hilton, Forster, Tolkien), but Lewis is the only American.

Elmer Gantry is not his best book (that would be Dodsworth), but is one of his better ones and is the one that made the best film.  Part of the reason for that is the acting — this is easily the best performance of Burt Lancaster’s career; this kind of charming, roguish man is the part that Lancaster was born to play.  But Jean Simmons is solid, Arthur Kennedy is very good as usual and of course, Shirley Jones gives one of the sexiest performances of all-time, full of lust and anger and humor.  But then there is the novel itself.  Brooks cast off a considerable chunk of the novel and focused more on Elmer, on his rise and fall, on the moments that would make a good story arc for the film.  It is one of the great examples of the difference between a novel and the film and how they don’t have to be the same.  Also part of the success is owed to the film itself.  Brooks does a good job at directing and and writing and his experience at bringing both Williams and Dostoevsky to the screen clearly had paid off.  The film is also well-made, with good costumes and nice sets.  The Oscar nominated score is for the most part pretty good, but the weakest moment in the film is the scene where Sister Sharon is losing her virginity and the score pulses to an ominous tone.  It is clearly playing the scene up way over the top (perhaps necessary to show the evil of the act to pass the censors of the time), but I thought it was ridiculous when I first saw the film years ago and thought so upon seeing it again as well.

But of course Elmer Gantry also works on a second level.  It seems to work as the parable that The Alamo so desperately wants to be but fails at.  In its portrayal of a cynical press, of a hysterical nation yearning for some morality to cling to, it was saying something about the era that was ending and a new one that was yet beginning, yet, it do so subtly and with great intelligence.  Much of this is due to Arthur Kennedy’s great performance as an H.L. Mencken type newsman.  But then, many films owe a good deal of their quality to Arthur Kennedy performances.  He could make bad films better and make good films great.

Random Discovery:  Hours after posting this, going through a box I found my datebook for 1994.  Turns out I watched Elmer Gantry the first time in October 18, 1994, the same day I watched Marty.  Ah, the joy of never throwing anything out.  And being the type of person who actually writes these things down.

A truly great novel makes a very good film: Sons and Lovers (1960)

Sons and Lovers

  • Director:  Jack Cardiff
  • Writer:  Gavin Lambert  /  T.E.B. Clarke  (from the novel by D.H. Lawrence)
  • Producer:  Jerry Wald
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Dean Stockwell, Wendy Hiller, Trevor Howard, Heather Sears, Mary Ure
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Howard), Supporting Actress (Ure), Cinematography (Black-and-White), Art Direction – Set Direction (Black-and-White)
  • Length:  103 min
  • Genre:  Drama (Literary Adaptation)
  • Release Date:  2 August 1960
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #14  (year)  /  #226  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Hiller)

The Film:  That’s the way to draw in the kids, I guess.  According to Inside Oscar, in an attempt to bring in the youth market, the producer jettisoned the first half of the book and tried to play up the sex in the story.  Did it work?  Well, it seemed to be a financial success and it certainly was a critical success, winning both major critics groups and earning 7 Oscar nominations.  And the most important thing is that it works.  If you want to make a feature film rather than a mini-series out of Sons and Lovers, this is the way to do it.

There are many strengths in the film and the script is the first one.  It manages to convey the world that Lawrence wrote about, the tensions in the family, the two very different romances that Paul indulges in.  It gives us a good, strong glimpse into that world so brutally described in the book, the world that Paul longs to escape from.  The technical aspects are very strong, with well designed sets (in the very towns where Lawrence grew up) and good cinematography.  And there is the acting.  Trevor Howard, so believable in other films as a model of the upper class, here is a perfect depiction of the British coal miner, beaten down by drink, poverty and life.  And while Mary Ure may have gotten the Oscar nomination, they easily could have gone to Heather Sears in the thankless role of Miriam or Wendy Hiller, in one of the best performances of her long, illustrious career as Paul’s devoted mother.

If there is a problem with the film it is the casting of Dean Stockwell as Paul.  He is the right age and his gentleness seems right in place for Paul, who was always so out of place in the society he was born into, but Stockwell’s performance just can’t seem to match all these brilliant British actors.  He just seems too American and perhaps that is what keeps this film from reaching greatness.  But for an adaptation of one of the great novels of the English language, it is certainly very good.

Fred Zinnemann scores yet another Oscar nomination for The Sundowners (1960)

The Sundowners

  • Director:  Fred Zinnemann
  • Writer:  Isobel Lennart  (from the novel by Jon Cleary)
  • Producer:  Fred Zinnemann
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Robert Mitchum, Deborah Kerr, Peter Ustinov, Glynis Johns
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Kerr), Supporting Actress (Johns)
  • Length:  133 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  8 December 1960
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #27  (year)  /  #297  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Kerr)

The Film:  Fred Zinnemann is one of the worst treated of the great Hollywood directors.  I can’t understand the modern view that doesn’t seem to give him the respect that he’s earned.  The Academy understood how great a director he was.  They gave him two Oscars and nominated him five other times.  Even when his films weren’t among the best of the year, they were enjoyable, they were well made and they were certainly well directed.

The Sundowners is a perfect example of this latter kind of film.  It’s not a great film.  It’s a high level *** film; enjoyable and well-made without rising above into the level of greatness.  It’s an enjoyable story – a family that roves across Australia, watching over livestock.  They are drovers; they have no permanent home other than themselves.  Then the circumstances finally arise where they can find a place to settle.  It’s a bit long, but it’s very well made.  It’s got good cinematography, is well edited, with good music and sound.  It’s certainly got good acting.  Deborah Kerr gives another one of her consistently good performances (and was better than the Oscar winner – Elizabeth Taylor), Robert Mitchum is quite good and the supporting turns from Peter Ustinov and Glynis Johns are both very good.  That’s really what can be said about it.  It’s a good film, enjoyable, well-made.  It’s not really worthy of a Best Picture nomination, but it’s not a bad choice either and at least back then Zinnemann got some respect.  Perhaps that’s the best thing about it.  It showed that the Academy recognized a great director when they saw one for once.

It's your patriotic duty to vote for The Alamo for Best Picture.

The Alamo

  • Director:  John Wayne
  • Writer:  James Edward Grant
  • Producer:  John Wayne
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Laurence Harvey, Frankie Avalon, Chill Wills
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Supporting Actor (Wills), Editing, Cinematography (Color), Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedic Picture, Sound, Song (“The Green Leaves of Summer”)
  • Length:  192 min
  • Genre:  Western (Historical)
  • Box Office Gross:  $7.91 mil
  • Release Date:  24 October 1960
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #71  (year)  /  #447  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Song (“The Green Leaves of Summer”)

The Film:  Let’s face it; it’s not a very good film.  The fact that the Academy bowed down and ended up nominating it rather than Spartacus (directed by master director Stanley Kubrick and written by formerly blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo) says much more about where the Academy stood in 1960 and how much weight John Wayne had then anything artistic about the film itself.  Because there is very little art in the film.  Oh sure, Wayne doesn’t embarrass himself as a director.  There have been worse films nominated for Best Picture.  But Wayne, directing his first film and making a big historical epic that was ostensibly supposed to be an allegory for what was going on in the Cold War decided that it was the patriotic duty of everyone to vote The Alamo in as one of the Best Picture nominees.  He eventually got his wish, of course, after a staggering $75,000 publicity campaign that included 43 different ads.  And it just didn’t belong.

Look at the film yourself.  Actually, don’t.  It’s over three hours long, is very badly written, has a lot of long, boring scenes, has a climax that’s rather unclimactic because it has to show how all the individual characters die, has pretty bad acting all around (Wills doesn’t embarrass himself and earned an Oscar nomination, but then embarrassed himself quite badly with his tasteless ad campaign), especially from Laurence Harvey, who was so badly cast.  The only two nominations that really could have been earned would be Score and Sound.  So, no, Wayne doesn’t embarrass himself, but he doesn’t acquit himself or his ridiculous notion of patriotism either.

It’s ironic.  Wayne hated High Noon, helped sway Academy voters against it and was proud of getting Carl Foreman’s career destroyed.  But High Noon is less than half the length of this film, with incredible direction, perfect acting, and most of all, phenomenal editing.  It is tightly constructed and there is barely a wasted shot.  This film is all obscene excess.  That film deserved to win.  This film didn’t even deserve to get nominated.

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