"She looks like Eva Marie Saint / In On the Waterfront / She reads Simone de Beauvoir / In her American circumstance"

The 27th annual Academy Awards for the film year 1954.  The nominations were announced on February 12, 1955 and the awards were held on March 30, 1955.

Best Picture:  On the Waterfront

  • The Country Girl
  • The Caine Mutiny
  • Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
  • Three Coins in the Fountain

Most Surprising Omission:  Sabrina

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Rear Window

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #63

The Race: Just like the year before, the race was pretty much over and done by mid-summer.  In spite of good reviews for The Caine Mutiny, in spite of another couple of great William Holden films (Sabrina and The Country Girl), in spite of a new Hitchcock film that was a hit with the critics and the audiences (Rear Window), once On the Waterfront was released everything was over.

This time there would be no slowing the train down.  The National Board of Review would kick things off by naming it Best Picture in mid-December.  The New York Film Critics cemented it in the front-runner status by giving it Picture, Director and Actor.  By the time the Directors Guild entered the fray it was only a question of who would join it in the Best Picture race.  The likely nominees were looking like The Country Girl, Sabrina, Rear Window and The High and the Mighty, the other four DGA nominees.  The Golden Globes concurred with the Waterfront love, also giving it Picture, Director and Actor.  They only added a new contestant into the Picture race by giving Best Picture – Comedy or Musical to Carmen Jones.  The Writers Guild added to Waterfront’s awards and gave their other two awards to Sabrina and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers with nominations for The Country Girl, Rear Window, Carmen Jones and A Star is Born (which had won both lead Comedy or Musical acting awards at the Globes).

The Results: The DGA had accurately foreshadowed the directors race, with the same 5 directors getting Oscar nominations.  But only On the Waterfront and The Country Girl scored Best Picture nominations.  Sabrina (6 nominations, including Director, Screenplay and Actress), The High and the Mighty (6 nominations, including Director and two for Supporting Actress) and Rear Window (4 nominations, including Director and Screenplay) were out of the race in favor of The Caine Mutiny, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and most surprisingly, Three Coins in the Fountain.

The nominations simply sealed the deal.  On the Waterfront lead with 12 nominations and would go on to win 8 Oscars, tying the record set by Gone with the Wind and From Here to Eternity.

The Academy gets it right for a second straight year: On the Waterfront (1954)

On the Waterfront

  • Director:  Elia Kazan
  • Writer:  Budd Schulberg  (suggested by the articles by Malcolm Johnson)
  • Producer:  Sam Spiegel
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Story and Screenplay, Actor (Brando), Supporting Actor (Malden), Supporting Actor (Steiger), Supporting Actor (Cobb), Supporting Actress (Saint), Editing, Cinematography (Black-and-White), Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedic Picture, Art Direction (Black-and-White)
  • Oscar Records:  Most Wins  (8 – tied with Gone with the Wind and From Here to Eternity; beaten in 1958); first film with 3 Best Supporting Actor nominations
  • Length:  108 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Social)
  • Box Office Gross:  $9.6 mil
  • Release Date:  28 July 1954
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #24  (nominees)  /  #7  (winners)  /  #31  (all-time)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Brando), Supporting Actor (Malden), Supporting Actor (Steiger), Supporting Actor (Cobb), Supporting Actress (Saint), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction

The Film:  There are certainly similarities between High Noon and On the Waterfront.  Both of them are stories of one man who becomes determined to do what he feels is right.  Both men face death and both men blink, but then keep going.  Both contain Academy Award winning performances that absolutely deserved their Oscars.  Of course, anyone who knows the back story about the two films knows that the similarities end there.  High Noon was written by a soon to be blacklisted writer who was forced to flee to England.  On the Waterfront was directed by a man who testified in front of HUAC.  But in both cases that back story can be put away.  Whenever you have a parable, you must put the parable aside and ask if it works as art.  The best of messages is a failure if it doesn’t work.  Well, High Noon is a great film, easily the best of the 1952 Oscar nominees.  On the Waterfront is even better.

How good is On the Waterfront?  It was nominated for 12 Oscars and it won 8 of those Oscars and I think the Academy under-rated it.  It contains the most fully mature performance of Marlon Brando’s great career – the one in which he most perfectly melded his method acting with Hollywood stardom.  It contains a debut performance of such magnificence, beauty and depth from Eva Marie Saint that it inspires songs.  It has such amazing supporting work that for the first time the Academy nominated three supporting actor performances from the same film (those three nominations almost certainly ended up splitting the vote, but to me there’s no question that Karl Malden absolutely should have won).  It has a magnificent script that combines theatricality with brutal realism.  It has Academy Award winning editing, cinematography and art direction and a score so good that the Academy members should smack themselves upside the head for not giving it the Oscar.  It has a scene that became an instant classic, still one of the best scenes between two actors in the history of film.

Then there is the direction.  Elia Kazan’s name brings up critical discussions whenever it is mentioned.  But Kazan is not merely one of the greatest directors in film history, but also one of the most critically important.  With his three films with Marlon Brando, then followed up with the first starring performance of James Dean, Kazan shaped method acting from the stage to the screen.  Method acting existed on film before Streetcar, but it was Kazan who found a way to make it fit on screen, to adapt it to film.

As for the scene, the one that has become so famous?  Well, some scenes, like the shower scene in Psycho, lose power over time, especially as people know they are coming.  The scene in the car with Brando and Rod Steiger doesn’t.  The honest look of betrayal on Brando’s face when Steiger pulls the gun on him is acting at its finest.  This is a man who has come to a point where he honestly needs to take stock in his life and he knows what he has become.  And his dialogue is so persuasive, or perhaps touches enough on his brother’s love that his brother lets him go, knowing full well that this will probably cost him his life.  Such are the prices such men pay.

the almost forgotten film that won Grace Kelly the Oscar: The Country Girl (1954)

The Country Girl

  • Director:  George Seaton
  • Writer:  George Seaton  (from the play by Clifford Odets)
  • Producer:  William Perlberg
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, William Holden
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor (Crosby), Actress (Kelly), Cinematography (Black-and-White), Art Direction (Black-and-White)
  • Length:  104 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Box Office Gross:
  • Release Date:  11 December 1954
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #8  (year)  /  #218  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Crosby), Actress (Kelly), Supporting Actor (Holden), Original Score

The Film:  For some reason, The Country Girl doesn’t seem to have much of a reputation anymore.  If it is discussed at all it seems to be because people think that Grace Kelly somehow snuck in and stole Judy Garland’s Oscar.  Well let’s put that rumor to rest right now.  Grace Kelly won the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics and the Golden Globe prior to the Oscars.  She even went on, after the Oscars, to win the BAFTA.  She was the first actress to ever pull off a complete sweep.  If you have ever read any of the numerous pieces I have written on The Wizard of Oz then you certainly know how much I adore Judy Garland.  And her performance in A Star is Born wins my Best Actress – Comedy or Musical for the entire decade.  But I would still have given the Oscar to Grace Kelly.  She plays a woman who elicits absolutely no sympathy from the audience during the entire first half, then manages to turn that completely around without ever getting sentimental or maudlin.  She gives an honest, great performance and it seems about time that people remember that she wasn’t just the Academy’s choice in 1954, but everybody’s choice.

That so much attention is focused upon her performance makes people forget about the film as a whole, which is a shame, because it’s a great film.  It has Bing Crosby in his best performance, as an alcoholic actor struggling to hold it together and do this show.  It has one of those great cynical William Holden performances, but one in which he has to dial back a little because he knows he’s not the star.  It is well written, well directed and though I would have given the Screenplay Oscar to Sabrina, it is not a bad choice.

I know there are a lot of people who believe Judy Garland should have won and it’s a very good argument.  I won’t argue with it.  She was phenomenal and it’s like pulling hair to make my choice.  But let’s not forget how wonderful Grace Kelly was in The Country Girl.  Odds are that a lot of the people who complain about this choice haven’t even seen The Country Girl.

Bogart's last great role: as Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny (1954)

The Caine Mutiny

  • Director:  Edward Dmytryk
  • Writer:  Stanley Roberts  (from the novel by Herman Wouk)
  • Producer:  Stanley Kramer
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Humphrey Bogart, Robert Francis, Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray, Jose Ferrer, Tom Tully
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay, Actor (Bogart), Supporting Actor (Tully), Editing, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedic Picture, Sound
  • Length:  124 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Box Office Gross:  $21.8 mil  (#5 – 1954)
  • Release Date:  24 June 1954
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #10  (year)  /  #230  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Bogart), Supporting Actor (Ferrer), Sound, Visual Effects, Sound Editing

The Film:  According to the IMDb, Dmytryk thought the film should have been longer – three and a half or four hours, so he could fleshed out the characters better.  Of course, the characters could have been fleshed out better if they hadn’t wasted so much time on the romantic subplot.  We have here a riveting drama about a captain who really isn’t fit for command and the officers who feel that they have to take action.  The captain is played by Humphrey Bogart in one of the best performances of his career – his disintegration in the courtroom is tragic and manages to draw sympathy from a crowd that has been leaning away from him throughout the film.  The man on trial is Van Johnson, the first officer, who takes control in the middle of a typhoon and there is no question to the audience that he has to do it or everyone on the ship might die.  We have watched Captain Queeg disintegrate and we know that Johnson is taking the action that he must.  In the court-martial trial, he is acquitted when the jury watches Queeg melt under the pressure.  But Jose Ferrer, in one of his best performances, as the naval lawyer defending Johnson is disgusted at his own actions.  He knows, and points out in a magnificent final speech, that if the officers had simply given Queeg more support on the ship then he might never have cracked.

So why the three and a half stars?  Why not four?  Well, because what I haven’t mentioned is the rather flat performance by Robert Francis.  Francis is the hinge upon which the movie swings.  The story begins when he first steps foot on the Caine and follows his journey beyond the court-martial.  His performance is rather flat, a simply pretty boy being groomed to be a star who tragically died in the next year.  But you notice that he’s not on the poster even though the film follows his every actions?  And you notice that I said the story begins when he steps foot on the Caine?  Well, the film doesn’t begin then.  It begins with his graduation and follows his affair with a local woman before he actually makes it to the Caine.  Then we have a long interlude in San Francisco when the Caine is docked for a few days while he and the girl go gallavanting in Yosemite.  If only these scenes had been cut (you could make the argument that Francis was being groomed for stardom and that perhaps the studio wanted to keep the romantic subplot, but if they wanted that then why is he absent from the poster?), more time could have been spent with the central characters.  We could have had a deeper film and even a shorter one.  But even the ending is distracting, as we follow Francis through his romance yet again before he goes to his new ship.  So much of a waste.  The idea of using this young ensign, new to the navy, new to the Caine, to tell us the story works, but it should have stuck more with the naval action and abandoned his personal life.

One final nice note, though.  The one advantage of keeping the Yosemite scenes?  They watch the Firefall, an old tradition where red hot embers were pushed off Glacier Point which could be watched from Camp Curry every night.  This tradition was abandoned in the sixties, though it was in the guidebook that I looked at before I first went to Yosemite in 1983 and I was disappointed that I didn’t get to see it.  It’s nice that it’s still there, captured forever on film.  That doesn’t mean the scene should be in the movie.  I’m just glad I could watch the Firefall.  Ironically, it’s not even accurate.  The Firefall was suspended during World War II.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954): definitely not my favorite "classic" musical

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

  • Director:  Stanley Donan
  • Writer:  Albert Hackett  /  Frances Goodrich  /  Dorothy Kingsley  (from the story “The Sobbin’ Women” by Stephen Vincent Benet)
  • Producer:  Jack Cummings
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Jane Powell, Howard Keel
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography (Color), Scoring of a Musical Picture
  • Length:  102 min
  • Genre:  Musical
  • Release Date:  22 July 1954
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #41  (year)  /  #396  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  I know that there are people who consider this a classic musical, who even think it is a better film than West Side Story and The Music Man.  I know that because I had to listen to that ridiculous notion when I still participated in the Criterion forum.  It’s not a bad film.  It’s got boundless energy, some great dancing and is alive, through and through.

That being said, even after watching it again, I can’t think of a single memorable song, certainly nothing that can compare to the great musicals of the fifties and sixties.  The brothers certainly know how to dance, but they don’t know how to act and their brides aren’t any better.  The best musicals rely not only on great music, but also on the performances and there just isn’t anything in this film to support it.  Then there is the story.  It’s just so ridiculous.  I didn’t believe any of it for even a single minute, right down to the absurd ending (winter doesn’t last all that long in Oregon – certainly not long enough for a woman to be abducted, get pregnant and give birth – how stupid are these people anyway?).  I can understand that people enjoy it, that it has all the frivolity of the great musicals without any seriousness, but to really consider it a classic?  That one I can’t buy.

What was the Academy thinking by nominating Three Coins in the Fountain in 1954?

Three Coins in the Fountain

  • Director:  Jean Negulesco
  • Writer:  John Patrick  (from the novel by John H. Secondari)
  • Producer:  Sol C. Siegel
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Maggie McNamara, Jean Peters, Dorothy McGuire, Clifton Webb, Louis Jourdan
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Cinematography (Color), Song (“Three Coins in the Fountain”)
  • Length:  102 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Romance)
  • Release Date:  2 June 1954
  • My Rating:  **
  • My Rank:  #55  (year)  /  #460  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Song (“Three Coins in the Fountain”)

The Film:  If there are any Academy voters who were voting back in 1954 and are still alive, please drop me a line.  Please explain to me what the hell was going on.  What was the thinking?  I know the voters saw Sabrina and Rear Window because they both received multiple nominations.  And we’re not talking lowly nominations either.  Both of them were nominated for Director and Screenplay.  And yet, somehow, this ridiculous sappy romance, without any shred of talent involved in it except the writing of the title song somehow managed to leap over both of them and end up with a Best Picture nomination.  Perhaps even more inexplicably, it managed to win Best Color Cinematography over Rear Window.  The former is just embarrassing.  The latter is simply indescribably stupid.

Three Coins in the Fountain comes from that very odd part of Academy history.  In a stretch from 1950 to 1955, in spite of the rise of the guilds, the emergence of the BAFTAs and the continuing influence of the Golden Globes, something happened four times that has never happened again: a film getting nominated for Best Picture without getting any earlier nominations from any of the other groups.  Three Coins in the Fountain was the third of these.  Perhaps if the Globes had announced nominees instead of just winners it would have gotten something, but even so, it is still ridiculous.  What we have here is a silly little romance.  Three American women living in Rome are having romantic problems.  They make their wishes at the Trevi fountain and, of course, in the end, in spite of some silly hijinks and ridiculous miscommunications, they have all found love.  It has nothing original about it (except the title song which won the Oscar although it shouldn’t have – “The Man That Got Away” from A Star is Born should have, another great film that was overlooked getting 6 nominations but not Picture), nothing interesting, wastes the talents of all involved (how can you have Clifton Webb in a film and have his performance be so dead?).  And the good news for you is you don’t have to wait through the whole film for the song.  It plays right at the beginning.  I recommend listening to it then turning it off and trying to forget that it was ever nominated for anything.