Romeo and Juliet done right: Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) in West Side Story (1961)

The 34th Academy Awards, for the film year of 1961.  The nominations were announced on February 26, 1962 and the awards were held on April 9, 1962.

Best Picture:  West Side Story

  • The Hustler
  • The Guns of Navarone
  • Fanny
  • Judgment at Nuremberg

Most Surprising Omission:  La Dolce Vita

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Throne of Blood

Best Eligible English Language Film Not Nominated:  Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #33

The Race: The big film of the summer was The Guns of Navarone, which also was getting excellent reviews.  The film getting the best reviews going into the fall were for The Hustler, with phenomenal marks for Paul Newman.  But everything was out the window once West Side Story came out in October.  Immediately wiping everything away in terms of critical appreciation and commercial appeal, it looked like there would be another huge sweep at the Oscars.  Suddenly everything else was relegated to second status, including Splendor in the Grass, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Judgment at Nuremberg.

The National Board of Review didn’t help as it gave Best Picture to Question 7, a small German film.  The Best Director award went to Jack Clayton for The Innocents, which also wasn’t up for any serious consideration.  The New York Film Critics set things up properly by giving Best Picture to West Side Story and Best Director to Robert Rossen for The Hustler.  The Directors Guild chimed in next, nominating Blake Edwards (Breakfast), Rossen, Stanley Kramer (Judgment), J. Lee Thompson (Navarone) and the award to Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins (West Side Story), immediately establishing those five as the front-runners.  The Golden Globes helped all of them with Best Picture nominations except The Hustler and wins for West Side Story and The Guns of Navarone.  Next up were boosts for West Side Story (which didn’t need it), Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Hustler with wins at the Writers Guild.

The Results: Breakfast at Tiffany’s was out in favor of Fanny, but the other four were as expected: West Side Story, Guns, Hustler, JudgmentWest Side Story and Judgment were tied with 11 nominations each, but in the end, it was no competition.  West Side Story would win 10 out of 11, coming in second only to Ben-Hur.

Random Note: For the first and only time since 1931, none of the nominated films were directed by one of my Top 100 Directors.  There were plenty of eligible films by Top 100 Directors, both Foreign (Throne of Blood, La Dolce Vita, Yojimbo, Elevator to the Gallows) and domestic (One, Two, Three, Splendor in the Grass, The Misfits, Pocketful of Miracles, The Children’s Hour), but none of them managed to make it.

One of my favorite musicals of all-time and winner of 10 Oscars: West Side Story (1961)

West Side Story

  • Director:  Robert Wise  /  Jerome Robbins
  • Writer:  Ernest Lehman  (from the play by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim)
  • Producer:  Robert Wise
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Russ Tamblyn
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Chakiris), Supporting Actress (Moreno), Editing, Cinematography (Color), Musical Score, Sound, Art Direction (Color), Costume Design (Color)
  • Length:  152 min
  • Genre:  Musical  (Shakespeare Adaptation)
  • Box Office Gross:  $43.65 mil
  • Release Date:  18 October 1961
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #29  (nominees)  /  #9  (winners)  /  #37  (all-time)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Chakiris), Supporting Actress (Moreno), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction, Sound Editing, Costume Design

The Film:  It is so entrenched as in institution today that it hard to imagine what a ground-breaking film West Side Story is.  Before it won 10 Oscars, before it became one of the highest-grossing films of all-time (5th when it was first released, 66th even today when accounting for inflation), before AFI placed it as either the 2nd or 3rd greatest American musical of all-time (depending on whether you believe their Musicals list or their American films list), it was a daring and amazing film like nothing that had ever been seen before.  Think about this: you go 15 minutes into the film before you hear anything more than incidental dialogue and, more incredibly, a full 20 minutes before you get to the first song (“The Jet Song”).  What kind of musical is that?

Possibly the best one to ever come off the stage and onto film.  No.  I’m going to eliminate that word possibly.  The only two musicals which are comparable are The Wizard of Oz and Singin in the Rain, both of which were original for film.  No stage musical has ever made a more successful transition to film and given that this tradition includes Best Picture winners My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and Chicago as well as such classics as The Music Man and Cabaret.  So what is it about West Side Story that is so amazing?

Well, it helps that it has some of the best songs around.  There is “Tonight”, one of the great love duets.  There’s “Officer Krupke”, one of the funniest songs ever written and a wonderful explication of various theories about juvenile delinquency (my Sociology professor once made me bring it to our Criminology class – and yes, I own the soundtrack, both the film and the Broadway versions).  “Officer Krupke” was wisely moved to before the fight, as its joyous feeling works better in the first half of the film and also allows Russ Tamblyn to have a central part in the song.  Let’s not forget, “America,” which has long been one of my favorites and which, when moved from stage to screen, was changed to a fight among the various Puerto Rican females into an argument between Anita and Bernardo.  And the then there is “Somewhere”, so perfect a song between the two leads and then magnificently reprised for the final touching moments.

But great songs alone can’t make for a great film.  Jerome Robbins, the choreographer of the original play, who had helped make it such a stage success was brought in to direct all the singing scenes.  His touch is evident in many of the best moments, with the almost balletic movements among the gangs.  While Robert Wise directed the dialogue and would eventually take over when Robbins was taking too long, those first moments of the film (after the wonderful pan across the lower west side – this is the only film not made by Woody Allen that could possibly make me love New York), beginning with the snapping of those fingers and the slow introduction of the Jets and then the Sharks is all about the magical energy that Robbins brought to the film.

There there is the acting.  Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood aren’t great and both were dubbed, but they are enjoyable and they make a wonderful, romantic couple.  But the supporting performances are perfect.  Tamblyn often gets overlooked because of the Oscars for Chakiris and Moreno, but he is also excellent.  Then there are the two Oscar-winning performances.  Musicals are often looked at as an out-dated genre, one from the Studio Era, but before West Side Story only two acting Oscars had ever gone to Musicals – both for Best Actor (James Cagney for Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942 and Yul Brynner for The King and I in 1956).  The performances by Chakiris and Moreno were just too damn good to be ignored and West Side Story remains one of only two Musicals to ever win multiple acting Oscars (Cabaret is the other).

And of course there is the film itself.  The way the camera moves to follow the dancing.  The wonderful sets among buildings marked for demolition where Lincoln Center stands today.  There is the wonderful set below the highway, the setting for the fight scene, with its incredible colors and shadows.  Then there is the editing.  Look at the reprise of “Tonight” and how perfectly we move back and forth between all the various singers.  It never gets confusing and we never get bored.  It takes a difficult song and makes it come out perfect.  This is what film can do: open up the staging of songs for new possibilities.

Now we can come down to the last perfect thing.  I have never liked Romeo and Juliet.  For all my Shakespeare scholarship, it has never appealed to me.  It has wonderful lines, but a ridiculous storyline and is filled with characters who act like complete idiots, most notably the fickle Romeo.  But West Side Story lacks that fickleness.  Tony is waiting for that something that suddenly appears to him at the dance, not moping around looking for Rosaline.  And then there is the end.  I always felt that if either character took enough time to think then they would both be alive.  Stupidity and impatience are not traditionally viewed as tragic flaws.  West Side Story fixes that.  It has a truly tragic ending.  Tony dies, not by his own hand, but through a tragic second of fate.  And Maria is too smart and too strong to suddenly join him in death.  Her final scene, singing “Somewhere” to him before angrily confronting all of the others brings a strong sense of emotional conclusion to the film, which Romeo and Juliet always lacked.

It is what it is.  Not only one of the greatest musicals ever made, but also one of the greatest films ever made.

Perhaps the perfect Paul Newman role: Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler (1961)

The Hustler

  • Director:  Robert Rossen
  • Writer:  Robert Rossen  /  Sydney Carroll  (from the novel by Walter Tevis)
  • Producer:  Robert Rossen
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott, Jackie Gleason
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Newman), Actress (Laurie), Supporting Actor (Scott), Supporting Actor (Gleason), Cinematography (Black and White), Art Direction (Black and White)
  • Length:  134 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  25 September 1961
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #104  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Newman), Actress (Laurie), Supporting Actor (Scott), Supporting Actor (Gleason), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction

The Film:  Let this fact settle in: in 1961 the Academy nominated The Parent Trap for Best Editing and Best Sound but didn’t nominate The Hustler for either award.  Think about that for a second.  The Parent Trap is a nice harmless Disney film.  The Hustler, has scenes that rely almost entirely on the editing and the sound.  The long pool scenes early in the film when Fast Eddie Felson squares off against Minnesota Fats are all about those aspects.  Of course, there is also the magnificent art direction and cinematography in those scenes and the Academy actually gave the film Oscars for both of those.  But so much of it depends on the editing and the sound, I just wonder what the voters in those two categories must have been thinking.

I remembered The Hustler as one of the great performances of Paul Newman with a truly magnificent performance by George C. Scott.  It had been maybe 20 years since I had first seen the film and almost as long since I’d seen the sequel, The Color of Money.  I was surprised when I went back to it at how much of a classic it is.  I had forgotten how wonderful and tragic poor Piper Laurie is and how magnificent Jackie Gleason is in two important appearances.  Of course, I remembered what a force of nature George C. Scott was.  Is there ever a moment when you can watch him in a film and not think that he is the smartest person in the room?  He somehow managed to take Lee J. Cobb’s forceful persona and imbue it with a brilliant rationalism.

Then there is Paul Newman.  I had remembered this is a great performance.  But I wasn’t prepared to go back and realize how great it was, how everything that followed in the 1960’s, Hud, Harper, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy, all flowed from this performance.  He was great in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but this is the moment where he truly became an acting legend, one of the greatest to ever be on screen.  It forced me to reconsider my long-held notion that Schell deserved his Oscar and think that Newman actually should have won.

But there are so many films that have great parts and can’t make them come together as a whole.  This isn’t true of The Hustler.  The direction is first-rate, it is well-written, it is extremely well-made.  It is a truly great film.

Since I don't really know what they mean by "high adventure" I can't really argue with the poster.

The Guns at Navarone

  • Director:  J. Lee Thompson
  • Writer:  Carl Foreman  (from the novel by Alistair MacLean)
  • Producer:  Carl Foreman
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Dramatic or Comedic Score, Sound, Special Effects
  • Length:  158 min
  • Genre:  War  (World War II)
  • Release Date:  22 June 1961
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #12  (year)  /  #238  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Visual Effects, Sound Editing

The Film:  The sixties were a great era for this type of film.  Think of The Magnificent Seven or The Great Escape.  They were grand adventure films filled with stars.  They were exciting and well made.  They had great action scenes and usually some good humor as well.  Is it possible that the rise of James Bond, with a great action hero, made these films outdated?

And how was it that The Guns of Navarone managed to rise above the pack and get nominated for Best Picture?  Well, there’s no question that it’s a very good film, it’s great fun, well-made all around, is thrilling and it actually gives Gregory Peck one of his more memorable roles, because he gets to be the action hero.  And even though it’s only my #12 film of the year, it does come in fifth among English language films.  Perhaps the key was that this was really a pretty weak year for American films.  It managed to win the Golden Globe when The Hustler, the only eligible Drama I rank above it, wasn’t nominated and it managed to get a Directors Guild nomination.  The Globe win was probably enough, as only one film by this point had won at the Globes and failed to be nominated.

Does it deserve to be here?  I’ll not argue against it.  As I said, it’s my #5 English Language film of the year.  It tells a great story about a small team of saboteurs who must get on to the island of Navarone and disable the German guns there so that British ships can get by and rescue British soldiers trapped on the other side.  Peck does a good job as the leader of the group and David Niven is good as the British soldier who is too smart for his own good.  It’s exciting, through and through, and if there have been a number of pale imitators in the years since, well that’s not this film’s fault.

Another film with men lusting after Leslie Caron - is there something I don't get?

Fanny

  • Director:  Joshua Logan
  • Writer:  Julius J. Epstein  (from the play by S.N. Behrman, Joshua Logan and Harold Rome, adapted from the plays Marius and Fanny and the screenplay Cesar by Marcel Pagnol)
  • Producer:  Joshua Logan
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Charles Boyer, Horst Buchholz
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Actor (Boyer), Editing, Cinematography, Dramatic or Comedic Score
  • Length:  134 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  28 June 1961
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #21  (year)  /  #293  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  They managed to do in one film what took Marcel Pagnol three.  Does that make this film more streamlined or does it mean that they don’t go as in-depth with the characters and their story as Pagnol did in his original?  I opt for the latter view.  This is a good film, with good performances all around.  Leslie Caron is very believable as the charming Fanny who loves her Marius so dearly.  Boyer is perfectly charming and robust as the fatherly Cesar, first to Marius, then to Fanny after Marius has left her with a child.  Then there is Chevalier, who, for once in his life, really gives an acting performance as the poor old man determined to look after Fanny because it is best for both of them.  And Buchholz is the perfect person to channel all of Marius’ anger and frustration at the world.

So why is it that this film doesn’t quite rise above three stars?  Why is it that it isn’t as good as the original films?  It’s the story.  This film truncates the action of the first film and eliminates most of the last film, compressing it all in time (the original trilogy takes place over the course of some 25 years or so while this film only covers maybe 10).  This film is forced to rely more on the performances to tell us who the characters are because we don’t get the story that does it for them.  In the end, perhaps it is because this feels too forced.  Buchholz is almost too full of rage.  Caron is almost too saintly.  We don’t get enough of their story, of their love for each other, of Cesar’s love for both Fanny and Marius and their son.

An odd endnote to this film is that it was based on the 1954 stage play that had been adapted from Pagnol’s trilogy.  But the stage play actually was a musical and for this film, even though Logan had been one of the original writers of the play, he eliminated all the musical numbers.  I would have been intrigued to see it as a musical.  Perhaps that it would have given it an added dimension that could have made it different but equal to the original.

So many stars makes for too long a film: Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

Judgment at Nuremberg

  • Director:  Stanley Kramer
  • Writer:  Abby Mann
  • Producer:  Stanley Kramer
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Spencer Tracy, Richard Widmark, Maximillian Schell, Marlene Dietrich, Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland, William Shatner
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Schell), Actor (Tracy), Supporting Actor (Clift), Supporting Actress (Garland), Editing, Cinematography (Black-and-White), Art Direction (Black-and-White), Costume Design (Black-and-White)
  • Length:  186 min
  • Genre:  Drama (Social)
  • Release Date:  19 December 1961
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #39  (year)  /  #359  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Schell), Supporting Actor (Clift), Supporting Actress (Garland)

The Film:  It’s an interesting thing about film billing.  Look there at the poster and you’ll see five different people listed above Maximilian Schell, including Judy Garland, who really only has three scenes in the film.  Yet, there was Schell, in the end, winning Best Actor (for a long time I agreed with that and if I go with Newman now it’s nothing negative about Schell’s performance – it really is a magnificent job).  But that’s the thing about Hollywood, of course.  You have to bill the stars and sure as hell no one was going to know who Maximilian Schell was.

Spencer Tracy, on the other hand, was a bone fide star, pretty much ending up in the Best Actor race every year, whether he deserved to or not.  Most of the time it was not.  This is a perfect example.  He does a perfectly serviceable job as the lead judge in a later stage of the Nuremberg trials – judging Nazi judges and determining their culpability in the crimes of the Third Reich.  But his performance, just kind of the old man, wandering along through Nuremberg, surveying the damage done to the city and the country by the war and by the trials, also serves to illustrate the basic problems of the film.  In spite of the 11 nominations, this is not a great film, or even a very good film.  It is a solid Stanley Kramer type film, the film with a message with a good cast that does a fairly good job, but over-blown, over-done, over-directed and very over-written.  After The Defiant Ones, Kramer tried to hard to stick to his messages and his films lost sight of their stories; films like On the Beach, Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner all suffer from the way he handles the material.  None of them are great films.

In this case, the biggest problem with the film is its length.  Not that the film is so long.  But that it takes up so much time focusing on Tracy and the way he interacts with everyone.  It becomes determined to view everything through his eyes.  It would have been better to just focus on the trial, to not get bogged down in all of that.  Certainly the best performances of the film are all in the trial scenes – Schell’s magnificent performance, the righteous indignation of Richard Widmark, the haunting, stylistic performance of Montgomery Clift, the tragic performance of Judy Garland.  While the screenplay somehow managed to win the Oscar (which isn’t as bad as the fact that this film which is way too long and has far too many unnecessary scenes got nominated for Best Editing), it is the main problem.  It wants to do too many things and go too many places.

One last note on Spencer Tracy in this film.  He was 60 when it was filmed.  I am reminded of the famous quote from The Man Who Came to Dinner: “My great aunt Jennifer ate a whole box of candy every day of her life. She lived to be 102, and when she had been dead three days, she looked better than you do now.”  My parents, in their late sixties, look eons better than Tracy does in this film.  That’s pretty good evidence of what a lifetime of drinking will do to you.

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