The 23rd Annual Academy Awards took place on March 29, 1951 during a tense political climate, not unlike the one which has pervaded the awards season this year. Just as 2017 has seen a lot of celebrity outspokenness over a sense of political injustice, in the late 1940s and early 1950s celebrities—including many who were nominated in 1951—were involved in fighting back against the Hollywood blacklist. This was the practice of blacklisting those in the entertainment industry because the House Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC] had found them guilty of being involved with Communism. Whether they were actually involved, or had ever been involved with the Communist Party, and whether or not there was any evidence for their involvement was not really important to HUAC. What was important was making a public example of Hollywood, thus sending a message to the rest of the country and the world that Communism would not be tolerated.
1951 was just before the peak of the Blacklist, and the sense of paranoia and suspicion is evident in many of the films nominated that year. Furthermore, many of the night’s biggest nominees and winners were in the middle of the political drama. John Huston, nominated for a best director prize for The Asphalt Jungle co-founded the Committee for the First Amendment to oppose HUAC’s targeting of Hollywood entertainers. Members included fellow nominees Bette Davis and Billy Wilder. Judy Holliday would be subpoenaed by HUAC just months after she received her best actress statuette and give probably her best performance in convincing the committee that if she had done anything wrong, she was too simple to know it. Holliday, despite her dumb blond persona, was actually very sharp and politically astute.
The blacklist practice would reach its height between 1952 and 1956, and it must have weighed heavy on the minds of the attendees on the night of the ceremony. But, as far as I can tell, there were no politics in the acceptance speeches [perhaps because that would have been risky]. It was a night for celebrating a good year in film, and some of the competitions were fierce.
A number of the films nominated that night have entered the canon of classic film, like All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard, The Asphalt Jungle, and The Third Man. It was also a year for the record books, as All About Eve was nominated for a record-breaking 14 awards. That’s a number matched only by Titanic and, just recently, La La Land. [La La Land almost beat All About Eve’s number of wins—6—but then someone realized that they gave Warren Beatty the wrong envelope. So La La Land tied with All about Eve.]
I watched as many movies as I could from the categories in which All About Eve was nominated. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get to many of the films from the technical categories, mostly because they were not available anywhere. But I saw most of them from the main categories, and I will only discuss categories from which I saw most of the nominated films.
Best Cinematography, Black and White
All About Eve [Milton R. Krasner]
The Asphalt Jungle [Harold Rosson]
The Furies [Victor Milner]
Sunset Boulevard [John F. Seitz]
The Third Man [Robert Krasker]
What won: The Third Man
What should have won: Sunset Boulevard
I have no skilled eye for cinematography, but even I can say that this was an excellent year for cinematography, mostly due to the fact that it was an excellent year for film noir. Three of the five films nominated in this category are noirs, and all of them use cinematography masterfully.
I was not able to see The Furies [couldn’t find it anywhere], but I saw all the rest. I think All About Eve is probably the weakest here, in that there isn’t a whole lot of creativity with cinematography. But the rest of them, the noirs, are very good. The Third Man and The Asphalt Jungle are both excellent example of a film noir, and a great deal of a film noir’s success rests on its cinematography. These films capture paranoia, drama, danger, and sometimes the surreal excellently, using depth and lighting (or lack thereof) to put the viewer on edge.
Artful cinematography is recognizable in Sunset Boulevard from the beginning, with the shot of William Holden’s body in the pool. It’s such a cool, unforgettable shot, and it seems ahead of its time. Also, the way light is used to frame Gloria Swanson, but not just light—light and dust. Frequently, when she is backlit there are also dust particles in the air highlighting the fact that Norma Desmond has been on a shelf for some time, without any attention. And who can forget the “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up” shot. Would that scene be as memorable without the crowded frame, the backlighting, and the blurring as Swanson approaches? Absolutely not.
All About Eve
The Asphalt Jungle
Father of the Bride
What won: All About Eve
What should have won: All About Eve
A bit of Oscar history: this category is now called Best Adapted Screenplay, and the Original Screenplay category used to be called Best Story and Screenplay.
The Asphalt Jungle has a good screenplay, but many of the characters come off as sort of flat to me. And it lacks the wit that many of the others in this category possess. It’s an entertaining movie, to be sure, and a film that deserves its place in the canon. But it doesn’t have the complexity of writing that All About Eve has.
I had heard of Born Yesterday, but had never seen it before setting out to write this piece. I am so glad I did, as it’s one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen this year. But while it’s fantastic at witty and charming dialogue, it’s weak in conveying more serious emotions. It can be overwrought, and the middle school history teacher patriotism made me roll my eyes a few times.
Broken Arrow was a surprise to me. I’m not normally crazy about Westerns, but I am crazy about Jimmy Stewart so I didn’t mind watching this one. Broken Arrow is notable in that it’s one of the first Westerns to portray Native Americans sympathetically and as full humans. In that way, it’s sensitive and complex, but it’s not as good as All About Eve.
Father of the Bride was fun, but there’s nothing there that deserves a best screenplay Oscar. Spencer Tracy could make dialogue written by a toddler interesting and charming.
There are a lot of things that make All About Eve a great movie, but one major thing is the writing. The dialogue is razor sharp and makes no excuses for its brutality. Unlike many of the other films nominated in this category [ahem, Broken Arrow] it sounds surprisingly modern, while also allowing for some theatrical drama. Of course, it’s a movie about theatrical drama which is what makes it work. There are also tender, emotional moments without the emotion being overdone [ahem, Born Yesterday]. I can’t like a movie unless the writing is good and in All About Eve the writing is very, very good. This was probably the award that the film most deserved.
Best Supporting Actress
Josephine Hull [Harvey]
Hope Emerson [Caged]
Celeste Holm [All About Eve]
Nancy Olson [Sunset Boulevard]
Thelma Ritter [All About Eve]
Who won: Josephine Hull
Who should have won: Thelma Ritter
Here’s a fun fact: All About Eve still holds the record for the most number of actresses nominated for an Oscar , and didn’t win even one of them. There are theories for this in relation to the best actress category, but I’ll get to that soon.
I always agonize over best supporting actress/best supporting actor category. It always seems like actors nominated in this category are so good, and it’s hard to choose. And Josephine Hull definitely fits that, in playing the perpetually-near-hysteria sister to Jimmy Stewart’s character with the invisible friend. James Stewart apparently once remarked that Hull had the most difficult part in the film, because she had to simultaneously believe and not believe in the 6’3 ½” tall invisible rabbit. There’s no denying she does a great job at juggling that, but she also spends most of the movie crying and screaming, so the performance is not quite as nuanced as the other actresses in this category.
Hope Emerson stood 6’2” and weighed nearly 200 pounds. That means she got typecast a lot, for example playing a strongwoman in Adam’s Rib. In Caged she plays a cruel prison matron, and her character is sort of like if Miss Trunchbull from Matilda was put in charge of female inmates. She’s great in the part but the part is not very complex and doesn’t give her much room to show any flexibility.
Nancy Olson is fine in Sunset Boulevard, but I don’t think she’s very memorable or notable. I was surprised to see her nominated.
Celeste Holm was very good at playing the poised, kindhearted Karen Richards, who is in charge of keeping a group full of dramatic hotheads together in All About Eve. Holm is a master of facial expressions that belie internal struggles, and if Thelma Ritter was not also in the film, she’d be a shoe-in for me.
Thelma Ritter’s Birdie is one of the most memorable characters in All About Eve. It’s not just her nasally voice and accent, although those help, it’s the way she balances the complicated relationship Birdie has with Bette Davis’s Margo Channing. Birdie is incredibly loyal to Margo while also being almost constantly annoyed and offended by her. It would be so easy to make Birdie a suspicious, unlikable character, but because of Ritter she’s one of the most lovable.
Best Supporting Actor
Jeff Chandler [Broken Arrow]
Edmund Gwenn [Mister 880]
Sam Jaffe [The Asphalt Jungle]
George Sanders [All About Eve]
Erich von Stroheim [Sunset Boulevard]
Who won: George Sanders
Who should have won: Erich von Stroheim
George Sanders is great in All About Eve, but there’s not much to him other than a snake-like manipulativeness. And Jeff Chandler is very good as the Apache chief in Broken Arrow but I can’t, in good consciousness, award a white actor in brown face. I just can’t do it.
Sam Jaffe is fantastic in The Asphalt Jungle. In fact, he’s probably the best part of the film. But I think Erich von Stroheim is perfect. When he reveals that he is Norma Desmond’s ex-husband, it’s shocking but it also makes total sense. He’s unforgettable. His facial expressions, movements, and way of speaking are distinct but not ridiculous as it might be in the hands of any other actor.
Anne Baxter [All About Eve]
Bette Davis [All About Eve]
Judy Holliday [Born Yesterday]
Eleanor Parker [Caged]
Gloria Swanson [Sunset Boulevard]
Who won: Judy Holliday
Who should have won: Bette Davis
This is a very strong category. Judy Holliday positively charmed the pants off of me in Born Yesterday. Without her, it would be a fairly forgettable movie that smacks of saccharine patriotism and a dumb blond trope. But Holliday, who played the part on Broadway and had to fight so hard to get the film role that George Cukor and Katharine Hepburn conspired to give her a role in Adam’s Rib to bring her to the attention of producers [it worked], is nothing short of magnetic. She slips into and out of comedy and drama effortlessly. It’s hard to take your eyes off of her, and even the dumb blond trope is new and interesting in her hands. She’s great, she’s hilarious, and she’s touching. But she’s not as good as Bette.
Frankly, I’m not even sure what Anne Baxter is doing here. This is an unpopular opinion, but I have never been impressed with Baxter’s performance as Eve. She’s supposed to be believably naive; audiences are supposed to be just as drawn to her youthful enthusiasm and humble nature as everyone else is. Maybe I’m cynical, but I didn’t fall for it for a second. She seems malicious from the start, and when she slips into the “bad guy” role, she’s even more one-dimensional.
Eleanor Parker, most famous for her role as "The Baroness" in The Sound of Music, plays a young inmate, imprisoned for her unwilling role in her now deceased husband’s armed robbery. She does such a good job. She starts the movie as an innocent 19-year old girl, traumatized by her husband’s death and her subsequent imprisonment, and ends as a hardened woman, jumping into her own life of crime. The transformation is believable and heartbreaking.
Gloria Swanson’s work as the washed up, psychotic Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard is legendary and as much as I love Bette Davis it was hard for me to make this decision. In fact, that’s been frequently floated as a rumor why Holliday won, and not Swanson or Davis. It’s possible they split the vote, leaving Holliday as the victor. Another theory is that when Anne Baxter lobbied hard to be nominated in the Best Actress category instead of Best Supporting Actress, she shot herself in the foot [c’mon, did she really think she was going to win over these two powerhouses?].
But it’s Bette Davis who will always have my vote. She was made for this role. She’s got claws and she knows how to use them, but she’s also devastatingly human. The scene in which she gets a phone call from her director boyfriend, Bill, in the middle of the night on his birthday is one of the most touching moments in film history. Her joy in unexpectedly talking to Bill is almost child-like, and viewers get the sense that they are actually seeing a very private, tender moment between two people with public lives.
John Huston [The Asphalt Jungle]
George Cukor [Born Yesterday]
Joseph Mankiewicz [All About Eve]
Billy Wilder [Sunset Boulevard]
Carol Reed [The Third Man]
Who won: Joseph Mankiewicz
Who should have won: Billy Wilder
This one was hard for me, because it’s a pack of great directors. Any of these directors could have won, and I’d be happy with it. George Cukor is one of my all-time favorite directors, a master at blending comedy and sophistication. John Huston and Carol Reed both do admirable work with their respective noirs, creating an aura of tension and danger.
For me, Mankiewicz and Wilder are basically neck and neck. But Sunset Boulevard, if not in the hands of a talented director could so easily have been laughable. Wilder manages to keep it right at the line of absurd, and that’s where he inches ahead of Mankiewicz for me.
All About Eve
Father of the Bride
King Solomon’s Mines
What won: All About Eve
What should have won: All About Eve
If you’ve read the rest of this article, this should be no surprise.
Born Yesterday is a delightful movie, but the Pygmalion-like plot is a little tired. It’s really only very good because Judy Holliday is very good. Father of the Bride is...fine. It’s a fun movie, but I was a little surprised to see it on this list. It’s fun and entertaining, which is why it’s remembered and spawned a sequel and a remake but it’s not great in the way All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard are.
King Solomon’s Mines is better than I thought it would be, given that the promo that played before the movie bragged about the African shooting location saying it was shot, “where no white woman had been before.” I groaned when I heard that, but the movie’s not half bad. I don’t think it’s worthy of a Best Picture prize, though.
A quick glance around the Internet shows that there is a lot of disagreement about All About Eve winning over Sunset Boulevard, and I get it. Sunset Boulevard is truly a great picture. It’s memorable in the best way; it’s entertaining, funny at times, uncomfortable at other times. I don’t think there are any missteps in this film. But I still come down on the side of All About Eve.
This was not an immediate decision. I thought long and hard about it. But in the end, All About Eve carries the weight of a storyline that deals with more than one complex social issue, and it never feels heavy or complicated. It also doesn’t seem self-congratulatory like many complex movies do. I have seen it dozens of times, and not only do I never tire of it, I find something new about it every time. That, to me, is a mark of a good film. All About Eve deserved the Best Picture Oscar.