Best Director Final 50: Jack Cardiff for Sons and Lovers

JACK CARDIFF FOR SONS AND LOVERS (1960)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Billy Wilder for The Apartment

Jules Dassin for Never on Sunday

Alfred Hitchcock for Psycho

Fred Zinnemann for The Sundowners

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Digging through Oscar history, I’m fascinated by the tidal waves of past controversies that reach the present day as mere ripples. The 33rd Academy Awards bore no shortage of polarizing films—Psycho, Hiroshima mon amour, films from Blacklist survivors Dalton Trumbo (Exodus, Spartacus) and Jules Dassin (Never on Sunday). None, though, had a more scandalous heritage than Jack Cardiff’s quiet adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s seminal novel. Lawrence first published his tale of working class family drama and sexual exploration in 1913, but it remained unfilmable (along with the rest of his fiction) for a half-century to come. It took the French adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1955 to make Lawrence’s writings viable material for English language cinema, and it wasn’t until the same year of Sons and Lovers’ release that British courts finally allowed the uncensored publication of the author’s writings. Needless to say, the shockingly frank sexuality that ostracized Lawrence is tame by today’s standards, and through Cardiff’s discreet lens it registers not as prurient, but as part of the sensitive character study at the story’s center. The scandal of Sons and Lovers haslong since blown over; what remains is a handsome, plaintive study in emotional withdrawal that Lawrence’s advocates, undistracted by his explicitness, always saw at the heart of his work.

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Best Director Final 50: Sam Wood for Kings Row

SAM WOOD FOR KINGS ROW (1942)

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The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5)

William Wyler for Mrs. Miniver

Michael Curtiz for Yankee Doodle Dandy

John Farrow for Wake Island

Mervyn LeRoy for Random Harvest

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Amid the sanguine early-1940s depictions of small-town America, Kings Row was one of the first to glimpse a rotten core.  Warner Bros.’ unevenly whitewashed version of Henry Bellamann’s original novel acts as a dark companion to Sam Wood’s previous adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, pointing again and again to the undercurrents of violence and sexuality that fuel its title community. Filmed on the eve of World War II (its release was pushed back for its troubling subject matter), Wood’s subversive directing seems to anticipate the bleakness of noir and the sordid disillusionment of Sirkian melodrama. Such a cinematic sensibility does not yet exist in a coherent form, though, and such moments flit between what is largely a forthright, wholesome outlook on middle America. Despite the upbeat façade, however, the characters and storyteller know that something is rotten.

The clues are there from the beginning of the film, as a carriage drives past a sign that positively glistens with foreboding:

“Kings Row, 1890: A good town—A good clean town—A good town to live in—and a good place to raise your children.”

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Best Director Final 50: William A. Wellman for Battleground

WILLIAM A. WELLMAN FOR BATTLEGROUND (1949)

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The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5)

Joseph L. Mankiewicz for A Letter to Three Wives

Carol Reed for The Fallen Idol

Robert Rossen for All the King’s Men

William Wyler for The Heiress

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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To borrow a metaphor from Manny Farber, William A. Wellman’s preeminent critical advocate, Battleground is war from the termite’s point of view. Forgoing the omniscient scope and overdone stylistics of the MGM Van Johnson combat films produced during the war, Wellman confines the story of the Siege of Bastogne to the perspective of a single squadron of the 101st Airborne Division. It is to Wellman’s credit that he could deliver such an understated depiction of American heroics at Louis B. Mayer’s MGM, and with Johnson headlining the cast, no less. To be sure, he was helped by the strong support of producer Dore Schary, who brought the script with him from RKO (where it was inauspiciously titled “Prelude to Love”) and fought against both Mayer and the prevailing wisdom regarding war films to get it made. To safeguard the integrity of the story, Schary chose the fiercely independent Wellman to direct, yielding a war story remarkable for is grounded emphasis on the thick of the fight.

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Best Director Final 50: Alan Parker for Midnight Express

ALAN PARKER FOR MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (1978)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Michael Cimino for The Deer Hunter

Woody Allen for Interiors

Hal Ashby for Coming Home

Warren Beatty and Buck Henry for Heaven Can Wait

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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Back to Turkey, though in a somewhat (but not completely different) light. The Turks have had a rough go of it lately, first as an oppressive ethnic majority, now as the perpetrators of a penal system that made the term “Turkish prison” shorthand for hell on earth. The film’s six nominations and two wins indicate the strong impression the sensational true-life account of Billy Hayes made on the Academy, much of which stemmed from permanently punching up the sobering brutality of prison life by a notch or two. The film had a substantial impact on the genre—just compare Cool Hand Luke to Hunger and it’s clear the worlds that Midnight Express bridged. On the other hand, as a political thriller the film’s legacy is dimmer—its distortion of Turkey through the eyes of its American protagonist is a cross for Alan Parker, Oscar-winning screenwriter Oliver Stone, and the Academy to bear. Ultimately, I found both elements combine into a meticulously—and frighteningly—effective study of unjust imprisonment and its toll on the human spirit.

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Best Director Final 50: Elia Kazan for America, America

ELIA KAZAN FOR AMERICA, AMERICA (1963)

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The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5)

Tony Richardson for Tom Jones

Federico Fellini for

Otto Preminger for The Cardinal

Martin Ritt for Hud

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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For as familiar as the tale of arrival in America has become in American culture, the tale of departure is largely untold. Most of Oscar’s films about the American journey are narratives of immigration, kicking off with the conclusion of the voyage (The Godfather: Part II, In America) or the tumultuous acclimation that follows (I Remember Mama, Hester Street, Gangs of New York). Even the Swedish epic The Emigrants, setting aside its three-hour sequel about settler life, allots one-third of its narrative to the homeland before shifting to the middle passage across the Atlantic and arrival in the American North. Few films place their emphasis on the overwhelming presence of the world being left behind, versus the pale mental evocation of the Promised Land. Elia Kazan, however, does not treat the American journey as a fait accompli. Rather than commencing the story of his family’s heritage with his uncle kissing American soil, Kazan makes it the culmination of a three-hour saga. Kazan’s film is a true narrative of emigration: the title, “America, America,” beating like a drum in the back of his young ancestor’s mind as he braves the tortuous and uncertain ordeal of gaining passage to the New World.

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Best Director Final 50: Henry Hathaway – The Lives of a Bengal Lancer

HENRY HATHAWAY FOR THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER (1935)

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The competition (Cliff: 4 for 4!)

John Ford for The Informer

Michael Curtiz for Captain Blood (write-in)

Frank Lloyd for Mutiny on the Bounty

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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Henry Hathaway’s nomination for The Lives of a Bengal Lancer is a textbook case of one of the Academy’s major weaknesses: the prizing of satisfying, middle-of-the-road filmmaking over distinctive stylistic statements. Fitting neatly into the colonial adventure mode of Beau Geste and Gunga Din (knowing what it is, the film calls out Rudyard Kipling by name in the first few minutes), the film lacks the operatic stakes and the rowdy energy, respectively, of its two most direct companions.  Indeed, Hathaway tones down many of the characteristics that distinguish the best-remembered directors of the genre striking a middle path between excesses of characterization (Hawks), action (Curtiz) and design (DeMille) and leaving a solid if unexceptional action adventure movie.

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Best Director Final 50: Roland Joffé – The Killing Fields

ROLAND JOFFE FOR THE KILLING FIELDS (1984)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Milos Forman for Amadeus

Woody Allen for Broadway Danny Rose

Robert Benton for Places in the Heart

David Lean for A Passage to India

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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From a certain perspective, The Killing Fields seems like the quintessential Oscar film of the 1980s, combining the phenomenal cinematic spectacle of Gandhi and Out of Africa with the urgent social message of Missing and Platoon. For a while now, I’ve been waiting to get to the colossal one-two punch thrown by Roland Joffé, who scored Best Director nominations for both of his first two films and put himself in the exclusive company of Mike Nichols, Warren Beatty, and the inexplicable Stephen Daldry. Unfamiliar as I am with M. Joffé’s oeuvre (apart from his involvement with the perversely wondrous Super Mario Bros. movie; his take on The Scarlet Letter has long been on my list of must-see flops), I’ve long been curious to see whether his initial Oscar success was the product of the Academy’s bias toward such Important Filmmaking or the genuine (if unsustainable) merit of his directorial vision. With one movie down and one to go, my conclusions about Joffés directorial voice remain provisional, but he seems to live up to the brag. Both on the level of craft and story, The Killing Fields is a substantial and powerful feat of filmmaking, even if it doesn’t quite live up to its own earnest standards.

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