In this project, I’ll be watching each Best Picture winner, regardless of if I’ve already seen it, at random years, and then watching the two nominees with the most Oscar nominations for that year to find out, in my pompous assessment, if the Academy made the right choice. If I’ve already seen the subsequent nominee, I’ll move on to the next most nominated for that year.
The 20th Academy Award Best Picture nominees I watched: A Gentleman’s Agreement, Great Expectations (5), The Bishop’s Wife (5)
[ bold = winner / italics = losers (nominations) ]
When I watched these: March 18th – March 20th, 2018
The snacks: In-N-Out, Mini Tacos, Taquitos, and the beloved peanut butter M&Ms
The year: 1946 and ’47, due to a strange technicality for Great Expectations.
Did I skip any of the movies?: Sort of. Crossfire also received five nominations; the tiebreaker was IMDb rating.
So why did the other movies lose?
The Charles Dickens model apparently translates well to the screenplay. Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities have produced exceptional adaptations, and Great Expectations follows the tried and true Dickensian model of a boy becoming a man and falling into various situations along the way. This version of Great Expectations, likely the most popular and highest rated, is rife with strong characters — even Alec Guiness shows up at a convincing not-Obi-Wan — and the pacing is perfect. But also following the Dickensian model is the somewhat confusing array of characters. Fortunately, the film takes care of that with recognizeable faces and interesting line delivery, but I certainly couldn’t keep track of all the names upon first viewing. The cinematography is stunning for its time — its use of lighting, the tension generated through sidelong shots and careful editing, are remarkable. The standout is Mr. Jaggers, a huge gregarious lawyer who both looms and generates laughs. The film can seem sluggish at times, which doesn’t deter its validity as a Best Picture winner in 1948, so I’m not certain how it missed the mark.
The reasons why The Bishop’s Wife fell short are obvious to me. Cary Grant plays Dudley, a well-dressed debonair angel who performs Jedi mind tricks to persuade people and performs miracles in order to lead this misguided bishop and his awkwardly swept-up wife to an ultimately benevolent goal, and sometimes this is funny, but it’s mostly manipulative. I like Cary Grant a lot, but this is a weak role for him — he has to lean heavily on quasi-religious quips and special effects coupled with his classic facial expressions for the intended effect, which is some cheap laughs in many cases. It deals with a couple of serious topics: the bureaucracy of the rich, and the sensitivity and value of a marriage, but the film gives Grant/Dudley max screen time and resorts to his supernatural maneuvers to drive the plot. Nothing technical besides the effects is creative.
So why did A Gentleman’s Agreement win?
A Gentleman’s Agreement addresses the sensitive topic of anti-Semitism, and while the Civil Rights Movement hadn’t occurred yet, the post-WWII transition in perspective toward racism was certainly underway in 1948, so the film hits the note at the just the right time. Sadly, as a film, it just doesn’t work. Gregory Peck is mishandled as the down-on-his-luck writer of a well-known publication. He’s looking for his big break, so he moves to New York and falls in love in sort of a bizarre fashion with the editor’s niece (who else?), then begins writing on anti-Semitism in the U.S., first encountering writer’s block, then, in an epiphany, decides to “become” a Jew. This sort of thing is used in farces, but the film takes this straight, which makes for a truly awkward journey through encounters with bigotry and prejudice around the city. Sure, the film handles the topic with as much sensitivity as possible, but only does so at key moments with Ma and at the ritzy inn where Peck(Green/Greenberg) is denied a room. Celeste Holm as Anne emerges as the most compelling figure in the film, a refreshingly quirky and feeling woman in an overtly politically charged film.
The movie that should have won: Great Expectations
While A Gentleman’s Agreement addresses a more serious topic, Great Expectations turned out to be the more lively and interesting film, depicting realistic characters and scenarios and proving to be the most sound film technically.