Ranking the Best Picture Winners: 1951 – 1959

1951: An American in Paris (Good, but Not for Me)

I had to create a new Tier for this one: winners whose quality I acknowledge but that failed to land with me, for reasons that have as much to do with me as they do with the films themselves. This musical, directed by Vincente Minelli and starring Gene Kelly, has so much going for it, from the gorgeous Gershwin tunes to Kelly’s energetic dancing to Oscar Levant’s wisecracks to the extended ballet sequence at the climax. Yet I can’t help noticing how 1950s gender roles figure into the script. Leslie Caron, as Kelly’s love interest, is charming, but her role is so underwritten that “charming” is just about all I can say about her; meanwhile, Nina Foch’s “bad girl” is presented as a lustful schemer who needs to be taught her place. (This aspect of the film stands out in contrast to 1952’s unnominated Singin’ in the Rain, in which the female lead, played by Debbie Reynolds, has a personality and a point of view, and Kelly’s character actually helps her fulfill her career ambitions.) So even though I recommend it heartily to those who love musicals with excellent singing and dancing, I can’t say I love it.

1952: The Greatest Show on Earth (Not for Me)

This overblown spectacle’s winning Best Picture is one of Oscar’s biggest WTF moments. I saw it once, but so little of it stayed with me that it’s practically a Never Seen. Making matters worse is that perhaps the strongest, most enduring movie of that year, Singin’ in the Rain, failed to be nominated. Which of these has given cinema buffs the most pleasure over the years?

1953: From Here to Eternity AND–

1954: On the Waterfront (Never Seen)

I have the least to say about these films than any other winners I’ve talked about so far. Most of my Never Seens I’ve deliberately avoided for a specific reason, perhaps a dislike of the subject matter, or bad word of mouth, or a dislike of one or more of the actors. But with these, I honestly don’t know why I haven’t gotten around to seeing them yet. I can’t comment further on them.

1955: Marty (Good)

This film is almost certainly the least “splashy” Best Picture winner of the lot, with its minimal budget and short runtime and overall earthy quality. It’s not challenging or thought-provoking; it doesn’t have anything especially profound to say. It’s just a small, sweet film, a love story of two underdogs played by Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair, made at a time when Hollywood hadn’t forgotten how to make high-quality small, sweet films. Those who sneered at last year’s winner CODA for being a “feel-good movie” probably won’t like this one either. But if you’re like me and you relish movies that can make you feel good without insulting your intelligence, give this one a look.

1956: Around the World in 80 Days (Never Seen)

Even though I like David Niven, I believe I can spare myself the awkwardness of watching Shirley MacLaine playing an Indian princess.

1957: The Bridge on the River Kwai (God-Tier)

When a British POW officer (Alec Guinness) orders his men to build a bridge, at the behest of his Japanese captor (Sessue Hayakawa), that will be a marvel of British engineering, is he a traitor? This brilliantly acted World War II drama builds to a collision between Guinness and Hayakawa and a team of demolitionists (led by William Holden and the underrated Jack Hawkins) intent on blowing up said marvel of British engineering. It’s one of those admirable films that provoke thought by presenting a situation in which no one is wholly good or wholly evil, and each perspective is given time and attention.

1958: Gigi (Okay-to-Good)

At one time, this film would have found a place in my Personal Favorites tier, thanks to its clever Alan Jay Lerner/ Frederick Loewe songs and its dazzling turn-of-the-century setting; plus, my twentysomething self thought Louis Jourdan was hot. I still enjoy a number of the performances, particularly Hermione Gingold as the grandmother of Leslie Caron’s titular heroine, and the scene she shares with Maurice Chevalier, in which the two of them sing, “Ah, Yes, I Remember It Well,” is a poignant highlight. Yet I’ve come to think of this film as the reverse of 1955’s Marty; where the latter is a triumph of low-budget sincere storytelling, the former has all the high-budget gloss and glamor with little of the heart. It’s a spectacle that I can enjoy when it’s on but that leaves little impact on my emotions.

1959: Ben-Hur (Okay-to-Good)

What was I just saying about “spectacle that I can enjoy when it’s on but that leaves little impact on my emotions”? That description applies equally to this film. At the time when it took the top prize, “sword and sandal” epics set in ancient Rome, often at or near the time of Christ, were in vogue, and this was one of the biggest; everything about this movie is huge, from the sets to Miklos Rozsa’s dramatic score (which, I must confess, I love). But it’s not the best of its genre. For those looking for a historical epic with a Christian theme, 1956’s Quo Vadis is better acted, with Leo Genn and Peter Ustinov in particular giving superb performances; the only performance in Ben-Hur that I find holds up is that of Jack Hawkins, as the Roman commander whose life Charlton Heston’s Judah Ben-Hur saves. Those just interested in a glimpse of ancient Roman history should find 1961’s Spartacus more enjoyable; despite its long runtime, there’s always something interesting going on, and with the exception of a miscast Tony Curtis, every performance is strong; Ben-Hur, by contrast, has significant lulls in its action, and you feel its overlength. I did enjoy seeing the film on the big screen at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre some years back, but when I went into the lobby I caught sight of a group of young people having a ball taking turns mimicking Heston’s hammy performance. I guess that shows how well the film holds up…


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