What makes an Oscar winner? I have no idea, really. But I can take a guess by 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 32nd Academy Award Best Picture nominees I watched: Ben-Hur, The Diary of Anne Frank (8), The Nun’s Story (8)
[ bold = winner / italics = losers (nominations) ]
When I watched these: November 20th, 22nd, and 24th
The snacks: took a week off from snacks, unbelievably
The year: 1959.
Did I skip any of the movies?: Nope.
So why did the other movies lose?
The Diary of Anne Frank plays heavily off of American sensibilities from the start. We have a clearly dolled-up Annie (Millie Perkins) as the natural centerpiece of a heart wrenching tale surrounding a Jewish family in hiding — the Nazis are the universal evil force, and love is the ultimate winner. The diary-turned-book is now world famous and required middle school reading, so we know the inevitable outcome, forcing us to sit and watch how they play the thing out cinematically. It’s executed well enough, but I couldn’t help but notice how westernized the Anne Frank portrayal was, along with her romantic interest, in contrast to their clearly Jewish relatives. The setting is claustrophobic, and the family grates at each other over the course of years, but the real tension is generated from the primarily unseen enemy and then the clock. The film convinces us that there’s hope for these tragic characters, but sadly we know how it all turns out.
In A Nun’s Story, we really don’t know how things are going to turn out. It features a higher body count (1), involves greater tension despite the absence of a real enemy, and includes a stunning performance from Hepburn as Gabrielle Van Der Wal, a nurse turned nun who has trouble fitting into the mold the convent requires. The nunnery scenes look like a holy boot camp, complete with yes ma’ams and disproportionate punishments for minor infractions. The cold environment, the surrounding austere ladies, and the somber realization within Sister Luke that she will have tremendous difficulty following the particulars creates a nearly tangible juxtaposition and struggle between pride and guilt. Some of the tension falls off when Gabby arrives in the Congo, and a fun personality clash takes place in her encounter with Dr. Fortunati (Finch), but this sequence creates a second film, ultimately, and unloads a cheap shot at the Catholic church at large. The film does manage to take the high roadand highlights Gabby’s inner struggles rather than the impossible standards set before her, but it really doesn’t measure up to the real winner.
So why did Ben-Hur win?
“Hatred is turning you to stone,” Esther warns Judah Ben-Hur, who had let his boyhood friend-turned-enemy Messala get under his skin and influence him to do things out of his character. When his pride is finally shattered, referring to Jesus, Judah says, “I felt his voice take the sword out of my hand.” It’s lines like this that build the brick-by-brick infrastructure of Ben-Hur — and yes, in 2017, the film is as rigid and simple as masonry, but equally sturdy. The tale of the Jewish aristocrat turned prisoner turned Roman quasi-hero is something of legend now, and not readily translatable to modern audiences, but you will still read Judah’s inner turmoil just fine, and you’ll still sweat out the galley scenes and glorious chariot race. The Messala/Judah friendship meltdown is special as well, expressing how time and ideals can drive a wedge between two close individuals if pride is allowed to rule.
The movie that should have won: Ben-Hur
The story of Ben-Hur was made for the movies, and Charlton Heston fills the title character’s shoes magnificently. It’s a masterpiece of cinematography, sound, and sheer scope.