The "fat ugly man" wins the Oscar. Betsy Blair just gets a nomination.

The 28th annual Academy Awards, for the film year 1955.  The nominations were announced on February 18, 1956 and the awards were held on March 21, 1956.

Best Picture:  Marty

  • Mister Roberts
  • Picnic
  • The Rose Tattoo
  • Love is a Many-Splendored Thing

Most Surprising Omission:  East of Eden

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Rebel Without a Cause

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #66

The Race: The big art-house hit of the spring and summer of 1955 was Marty, an expanded version of a teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky.  When it became the first American film to win at Cannes word of mouth went through the roof.  But star Ernest Borgnine was nothing like the other actors with star turns – William Holden, starring in a trio of big movies (Picnic, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing and The Bridges at Toko-Ri) or James Dean, whose East of Eden earned good box office and better reviews.  Dean died on September 30 in a car crash, a month before his next big movie, Rebel Without a Cause was released and suddenly he was the biggest star around, dead or not.  Strong performances from Spencer Tracy (Bad Day at Black Rock), Frank Sinatra (The Man with the Golden Arm) and Henry Fonda (Mister Roberts) were also getting critical attention, although Anna Magnani had pretty much sown up the Best Actress trophy with The Rose Tattoo, a play she had backed out of when Tennessee Williams originally wrote it for her, feeling her English wasn’t up to the part, but conceding to star in the film version.

The National Board of Review began the awards season by stretching back to the early part of the year, giving Best Picture and Actor to Marty.  Many of the big hits were included in their Top 10, including East of Eden, Mister Roberts, Bad Day at Black Rock, The Rose Tattoo and Picnic.  The New York Film Critics agreed a week later, again conferring Picture and Actor on Marty.  The Golden Globes agreed with Actor, but their Best Picture – Drama award went to East of Eden.  The Best Director awards were across the board, the NBR going for William Wyler (Desperate Hours), the NYFC for David Lean (Summertime), the Globes with Joshua Logan (Picnic) and the Directors Guild with Delbert Mann (Marty), the other nominees being John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy (Mister Roberts), Elia Kazan (East of Eden), Joshua Logan (Picnic) and John Sturges (Bad Day at Black Rock).  Those same five repeated as nominees at the Writers Guild with Marty winning Drama and Mister Roberts winning Comedy.

The Results: For the second year in a row, the guilds were better at predicting their own awards than Best Picture.  In for Director were Mann, Kazan, Logan, Sturges and Lean.  But East of Eden, Bad Day at Black Rock and Summertime were replaced in the Best Picture category by Mister Roberts, The Rose Tattoo, and surprisingly, Love is a Many-Splendored ThingEast of Eden had become the first film to ever win Best Picture – Drama at the Golden Globes and fail to earn an Oscar nomination.  Marty, Splendored and Tattoo were tied for 8 nominations, but the race was over.  For the first time since 1946, only one nominee was nominated for Picture, Director and Screenplay, thus assuring Marty would win all three and indeed, it did.

The shortest Best Picture ever (90 min): Marty (1955)

Marty

  • Director:  Delbert Mann
  • Writer:  Paddy Chayefsky  (from his teleplay)
  • Producer:  Harold Hecht
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Ernest Borgnine, Betsy Blair, Joe Mantell
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor (Borgnine), Supporting Actor (Mantell), Supporting Actress (Blair), Cinematography (Black-and-White), Art Direction (Black-and-White)
  • Length:  90 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  11 April 1955
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #21  (year)  /  #292  (nominees)  /  #64  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  Marty, as the poster says, is a fine film.  It is warm and it is rich.  It is a very sweet film.  But that’s it.  It’s not great.  It’s a solid film about two nice people who deserve some shred of happiness and on one night, they manage to find it.  Of course, they have to endure some trouble on the way and it’s a bit more poignant in that not only are the two characters not exactly eminently desirable, but that the actors aren’t either.  Hollywood didn’t try to dumb it down and take two better looking people and try to make them look plain.  That’s the kind of thing you can get when you have two independent producers determined to make a nice little film (rumors persist that Hecht and partner Burt Lancaster made the film thinking it would lose money and they could write it off, but no one says where that information comes from).  They got the film made and then they went to the one studio that would put out a film in that position and lo and behold, United Artists had a success.  It was a nice rebirth for United Artists, their first Best Picture win since 1940 and kicked off a stretch in which they would win 4 Best Picture in the next eight years.

But Marty is not a great film.  It is certainly not particularly well-made and not all that well-directed.  It is a made-for-television film that got stretched out a bit.  It has a very solid performance from Ernest Borgnine, completely authentic as the poor pathetic Bronx butcher who just wants to find a nice girl and stop being that 33 year old fat, ugly man who is all alone and solid performances from Joe Mantell as his best friend and Betsy Blair, as the equally unwanted school teacher that he meets.  It is one of those films of its time – people really flocked to it and they reacted emotionally, but it doesn’t hold up as a great film.  That it was so in tune with its time is evidenced by the fact that it is still the only film to win at Cannes and the Academy and it was one of those rare films that won both major critics groups, but it is a considerable let-down of the previous two years of From Here to Eternity and On the Waterfront.  It’s just a nice, little enjoyable film.  Let’s let it be that.

One of the best endings in all of film history: Mister Roberts (1955)

Mister Roberts

  • Director:  John Ford /  Mervyn LeRoy
  • Writer:  Frank S. Nugent  /  Joshua Logan  (from the play by Thomas Leggen and Joshua Logan adapted from the novel by Leggen)
  • Producer:  Leland Hayward
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, James Cagney, William Powell
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Supporting Actor (Lemmon), Sound
  • Length:  123 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • Box Office Gross:  $21.2 mil  (#2 – 1955)
  • Release Date:  10 July 1955
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #140  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Fonda), Supporting Actor (Lemmon), Supporting Actor (Cagney), Editing, Sound, Sound Editing

The Film:  It has one of the most wonderful endings in all of film history.  But don’t just go watch it on YouTube, because it works best if you have watched it in context.  There’s no question that it’s a funny line and it is so brilliantly delivered by Jack Lemmon.  And the clip in YouTube does give you enough to know how poignant it is.  But it really only works when you have watched the entire film.  Because if you watch the film, you get to know and love Doug Roberts, the wonderful character created by Henry Fonda.  He is a man who works hard, who is fiercely devoted to the men who serve under him.  He counters his firm captain at every move to keep pressure from getting to be too much for the men.

In this sense, there is a similarity between this film and The Caine Mutiny.  After all, each film is about a junior officer who goes around the head of a captain who doesn’t really deserve to be captain.  But that’s where the similarities end.  After all, Mister Roberts is a comedy and it takes this all very lightly.  Also, whereas in The Caine Mutiny, the junior officers clearly think of themselves as superior to their captain, there is no such sense that Doug Roberts believes that.  He simply believes in his men and wants, desperately to get closer to combat.  He wants to be doing something and he feels he isn’t doing enough.  So he works at it.  He makes things easier for those underneath him, manipulates things so that the crew can get some liberty, and then is finally pushed to a great act of defiance.  All of this is anchored in the wonderful performance of Henry Fonda, one of the best in a long line of wonderful performances.  While the Academy was nominating Spencer Tracy every single year, it was Fonda who consistently gave the great performances, year in and year out (in 1955, when Tracy, who actually gave one of the best performances of his career in Bad Day at Black Rock was nominated again he commented “It was a blatant omission on the part of the Academy to leave Henry Fonda out of the running.  He was great in Mister Roberts.”)

But to focus too much on Fonda is to lose sight of the other great performances in the film.  Jack Lemmon runs away with the Oscar in his hilarious performance as the timid Ensign Pulver (especially his first run-in with the Captain, where he explains how long he has been onboard).  Then there is James Cagney, so deliciously devilish without ever crossing the line into outright incompetence or pure evil.  He never takes the film out of its comedy.  There is also William Powell, so good in his final performance as the wise old Doc.

But the film, in spite of Lemmon’s very deserved Oscar, really does belong to Fonda.  It is his heart-felt performance that inspires those final actions that conclude the film and we can absolutely understand that Ensign Pulver would react that way.  It’s only natural when something like that happens to someone you have come to love so much.

What all of is this saying is that this is a great film.  It is great comedy and if it isn’t in the Top 100, it is so much fun to watch over and over does make it to #2 in what is actually a bizarrely weak year.  Weak, in that there are no truly top of the line films, nothing in the very high **** range.  But there are a lot of great films that don’t quite make the top and this is one of the best of them.

the original movie poster for Picnic (1955)

Picnic

  • Director:  Joshua Logan
  • Writer:  Daniel Taradash  (from the play by William Inge)
  • Producer:  Fred Kohlmar
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  William Holden, Kim Novak, Susan Strasberg, Rosalind Russell, Arthur O’Connell, Cliff Robertson
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (O’Connell), Editing, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedic Picture, Art Direction (Color)
  • Length:  115 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  November 1955
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #10  (year)  /  #212  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (O’Connell), Supporting Actress (Strasberg), Supporting Actress (Russell), Original Score

The Film:  “When they get together in Tulsa they’re gonna get mighty tired of only being looked at,” Roger Ebert says in the final line of his review of Picnic, awarding it just two stars.  But I think he’s missed the point.  He suggests that the movie wants to look at Madge, the character played by Kim Novak and how she is tired of just being looked at and wishes she had brains like her younger sister.  But in the end, she runs off to Tulsa to be with Hal, the man she just met the morning before, who mostly seems to just look at her.  He says that Hal is really just like Madge – that he is being admired simply for his looks and it is a double-standard.  But I think the film-makers knew just what they were doing.  It looks, on the surface, like they have written in a happy ending, but how happy is that ending, really?

See, one of the advantages of certain films like Casablanca and Shakespeare in Love and Romeo and Juliet is that we don’t have to wonder what’s going to happen to the characters afterwords.  They don’t end up together.  But look at other movies, especially pathetic romantic comedies.  How happy will these characters be down the line?

I’ll go off on a little tangent here.  Back in college I wrote a screenplay and at the end of the script, the two main characters were together, because, well, it was a romance and they were supposed to end up together.  Later I wrote a sequel, but in the sequel life had gone on and the male had married someone else, a minor character from the first script.  It was one of the things that seemed natural from the first script.  After all, the characters were in college.  These days, no matter how much romance you have in college, odds are that isn’t who you marry.

Well, I don’t think the film-makers of Picnic have any though that Madge and Hal are going to be happy together.  They’ll probably be pretty miserable.  I think of the great line by Salman Rushdie from Haroun and the Sea of Stories: “Happy endings must come at the end of something.  If they happen in the middle of a story, or an adventure, or the like, all they do is cheer things up for a while.”  That’s all they’ve really done here.  Sure, they’ve given us an ending, but this is really just cheering things up for a while.  The entire film is about the deep dis-satisfaction that lies just beneath the surface of everyday America in 1955.

I mean, look at Hal.  He notices Madge early on, but he connects so much better with Millie, Madge’s sister.  Millie is played with brilliant, verve, energy and a budding sexuality by a young Susan Strasberg.  She is smart and interesting and Hal seems to understand that, even if he is somewhat drawn to Madge’s midwestern looks (I honestly prefer Strasberg to Novak).  But he connects with Millie on a very real level, even if she is too young for him.  And in fact, it is Millie’s understanding that she has been pushed aside for Madge yet again, because Madge is the pretty one that moves things quickly to a tragic conclusion, where Hal is forced to flee town.

There is another wonderful sub-plot, with the characters played by Rosalind Russell and Arthur O’Connell.  They are so wonderful and real and O’Connell was rightfully nominated for an Oscar and Russell probably wasn’t only because she refused to campaign in Supporting (had she actually done so she might have finally won the Oscar that always eluded her).  Their performances combined with Strasberg’s wonderful performance are a reminder that Hal and Madge are not only the pretty ones that are being stared at, but that they don’t actually add that much to the film.  It is isn’t one of Holden’s great performances (he knew he was too old for the part) and Novak never was much of an actress.  But they don’t diminish the film at all.  In fact their shallowness seems to only add to the point.  This is a fine film, a much better film than you would be lead to believe if you simply read Ebert’s review and left it at that.  Sometimes things aren’t going to turn out so well after the lights come back on.  That’s just the way of life.  It’s just that nobody wants to watch that film.

Anna Magnani ran away with Best Actress in 1955 for The Rose Tattoo.

The Rose Tattoo

  • Director:  Daniel Mann
  • Writer:  Hal Kanter  /  Tennessee Williams  (from the play by Williams)
  • Producer:  Hal Wallis
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Anna Magnani, Burt Lancaster, Marisa Pavan
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Actress (Magnani), Supporting Actress (Pavan), Cinematography (Black-and-White), Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedic Picture, Art Direction (Black-and-White), Costume Design (Black-and-White)
  • Length:  117 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  12 December 1955
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #18  (year)  /  #279  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Magnani)

The Film:  Do students today still know that Tennessee Williams is the third part of the triangle?  That he is in of the great Holy Trinity of 20th Century American playwrights?  That he belongs on that same list with Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller?  It certainly helped that Williams’ rise to prominence coincided with the rise of method acting and that Marlon Brando’s stage performance in A Streetcar Named Desire is part of what helped establish it as one of the great plays in American theater history.  But it is more than that.  And he doesn’t end with Streetcar either.  Look at the list of great plays.  Hell, just look at the fact that The Rose Tattoo was the second of three that were nominated for Best Picture (after Streetcar, before Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and that other major Oscar nominations accompanied the film versions of Baby Doll, Summer and Smoke and Sweet Bird of Youth (those six films alone account for 5 acting Oscars among 15 acting nominations – every one of those films earned at least two acting nominations and there’s no question that Williams was good stuff for actors).

The Rose Tattoo is not one of his best plays but it was a good one and it made a very good film.  Williams had written the part of Serafina, the Italian-American widow struggling to cope with life in the absence of her dead husband and the presence of a daughter longing to escape specifically for Anna Magnani, but the great Italian actress didn’t feel she had command enough of English to do the part justice on stage.  However, by the time the film version came along, she had more practice and Williams himself managed to convince her to take the part.  What it provided was the best part of a long, distinguished career as she learns to live again and to fall in love with a romantic, sappy truck driver played so perfectly by Burt Lancaster.  Lancaster and Maria Pavan as the daughter are both very good, but both knew that it was Magnani’s film.  In the end there was no question.  Like Grace Kelly the year before, she would win both critics groups, the Globe, the BAFTA and the Oscar, a complete sweep that would not be seen again until 1992.

It is a very good film, enjoyable, watchable, well-made.  But in 1955, a year with nearly no truly great films, but filled to the brim with very good films, it’s only enough to push it just into the top 20.  Still, watch it for Magnani’s performance, if nothing else.

This is a very stupid film. (sing it to the tune of the song)

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing

  • Director:  Henry King
  • Writer:  John Patrick  (based on the novel by Han Suyin)
  • Producer:  Buddy Adler
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Jennifer Jones, William Holden
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Actress (Jones), Cinematography (Color), Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedic Picture, Sound, Art Direction (Color), Costume Design (Color), Song (“Love is a Many-Splendored Thing”)
  • Length:  102 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Romance)
  • Release Date:  18 August 1955
  • My Rating:  **
  • My Rank:  #64  (year)  /  #459  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Song  (“Love is a Many-Splendored Thing)

The Film:  Love is a Many-Splendored Thing is the last of four rare films: those films that managed to somehow secure an Oscar nomination for Best Picture without any forewarning from any other awards group.  Part of that might be that in the mid-50’s, the Golden Globes only announced winners and not nominees (as far as can be found).  But part of that is that it is a completely ridiculous film, badly directed, very badly written, not well acted, incredibly stupid and a pointless waste of time.  It does have the Oscar nominated song and it’s a nice song for its time.  But to take this film seriously?  To give it a Best Actress nomination?  To give it a Best Picture nomination over Golden Globe winner East of Eden or the timely Rebel Without a Cause?

Here are the possibly explanations for this: It was the biggest 20th Century-Fox film of the year in an era where they scored an Oscar nomination for Best Picture almost every year, accounting for 8 of the studio’s 14 nominations (in a 34 year stretch, from 1940 to 1973, Fox only failed to earn a Best Picture nomination four times – 1942, 1952, 1958, 1968); William Holden was a huge star and Jennifer Jones was still a pretty big star; it was a box office hit and the song was huge on the radio; people were brain-damaged and somehow actually believed that it was a good film.  But it is not a good film by any stretch of the imagination.  In fact, watching it again, I was surprised at how much it worse was than I had previously rated it.  Jones isn’t very good and Holden is just going through the motions.  And let’s not even talk about the ridiculous editing job during the death scene.  It’s just laughable.

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