What Should Have Won the 1961 Best Picture Oscar?

Am I allowed to love half a movie? And really not like the other half? I love musicals — truly, I do — but whenever the Academy picks one for Best Picture, I tend to cringe…

Here is part of what I had to say in v. 3 of WHO Won?!? An Irreverent Look at the Oscars, 1953-1963:

“In 1962, West Side Story was the 800-pound gorilla at the Academy Awards, an 800-pound dancing and singing gorilla that caused voters to mark it for awards regardless of any consideration of real merit. West Side Story is one of those universally famous movies that most people seem to love so much they can’t see the Sharks and the Jets for anything but what their memory tells them is on the screen. The flaws are invisible to them now. We watched it when we were kids, because our parents did; we watched it in high school, when the English teacher showed it to us as a modern version of Romeo and Juliet; we watched live versions at the local dinner theater, with the rubbery chicken. Like The Sound of Music – another big budget musical directed by Robert Wise – all kinds of warm, fuzzy, unexamined feelings go along with it. Don’t get me wrong – watching it as freshly as I can, parts still zing and enchant – but parts come thudding to the ground like an overloaded diaper dropped into an empty trash can. The original play isn’t the problem. Take one part Leonard Bernstein, one part Jerome Robbins, and one part Shakespeare; mix with an intent to undo decades of dance, musical, and theatrical traditions, and BAM! You’ve got something great on your hands. The problem comes from Hollywood insisting on casting two leads incapable of singing and dancing, who between them couldn’t muster a passionate kiss if their careers depended on it. Even the Academy could see that, when they didn’t nominate either Richard Beymer or Natalie Wood (Finally! Some intelligence!). Beymer has all the personality and grace of a lobotomized 2×4. (Leonard Bernstein became quite snarky when asked: “Natalie Wood played Maria, the Puerto Rican damsel in West Side Story. Natalie lost.”) Add a feud between director Wise and choreographer Robbins, which led to said choreographer storming off the sets, and what we’re left with isn’t a movie that should have won ten Oscars, but a beautiful corpse with the heart ripped out. The twitching is still entertaining, and at times, the corpse moves, but nothing can save us in the end from wondering just what the hell we could have had in better circumstances. I know West Side Story is a musical. I know we are in a fantasy world, even in the early Sixties. But part of me just can’t buy these gangs, because there’s an attempt to provide a highly realistic setting to dancing pretty boy thugs. Compared to what gangs are like today, a quaint air hangs over the whole affair. And if Tony was ever a gang member, then I used to run the Hell’s Angels in my salad days. Ultimately, the question of quality comes down to how well the movie both expands and preserves the originality and power of the stage production. With the leads, the answer is not at all on either count. With most of the songs and dances, I think the answer is true of preservation, with an occasional touch of expansion through the camera placing us inside the dances (at least the ones Jerome Robbins handled personally). What is also maintained, particularly in the “America” number, are the prejudices and attractions of the U.S., which remain fresh and compelling in their relevance. But the majority of West Side Story is leaden and desperately in need of the charm of a Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers or Robert Preston.”

The other official nominees included Fanny (honestly, does anybody remember this movie, outside of a few fans of the stars, Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, and/or Charles Boyer), the action-adventure hit The Guns of Navarone, Paul Newman finding his dark side in The Hustler, and the all-star Holocaust trial Judgment at Nuremberg.

Other choices include Sophia Loren going completely dramatic in Two Women; Audrey Hepburn and that cat in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; Warren Beatty refusing to have sex (?!?) with Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass; Geraldine Page and Laurence Harvey going Tennessee Williams in Summer and Smoke; Federico Fellini at his height, with Marcello Mastroianni  at his most wolfish,and Anita Ekberg at her most mammalian in La dolce vita; Frank Capra on his way out with Glenn Ford and Bette Davis in A Pocketful of Miracles; William Wyler filming the more faithful version of Lillian Hellman’s play with Audrey Hepburn, James Garner, and Shirley MacLaine in The Children’s Hour; Warren Beatty pretending (?!?) to want to have sex with Vivien Leigh in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone; the Russkies going sentimental with Ballad of a Soldier; Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini teaming up for the wartime General Della Rovere; Doris Day and Rock Hudson giving it another go with Lover Come Back; Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren kick Moorish keister in El Cid; Disney tries to outdo Laurel and Hardy with Babes in Toyland; Rodgers and Hammerstein head to Chinatown with Flower Drum Song; the Russkies film a ballet in Khovanshchina; Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier pretend to be jazz players — Louis Armstrong shows them all up — in Paris Blues; Bob Hope gets Lana Turner (now there’s a fantasy…) in Bachelor in Paradise; Kirk Douglas defends four soldiers accused of rape in Germany in Town Without Pity (best remembered today for the song); Disney goes flubber with The Absent-Minded Professor; Billy Wilder cuts James Cagney loose on some comedy in One, Two, Three; Rosalind Russell and Alec Guinness cross the international dating line with A Majority of One; Brando directs in One-Eyed Jacks; Diane McBain gets naughty with Arthur Kennedy in Claudelle Inglish; Kurosawa remakes Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest in Yojimbo; Susan Hayward in the second remake of Fannie Hurst’s Back Street; Disney gets spotty with 101 Dalmations; Walter Pidgeon goes undersea with Peter Lorre and a big cool sub in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea; Jesus meets Nicholas Ray in King of Kings; Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in their swan song, The Misfits; Sidney Poitier stars in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun; Hayley Mills meets Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap; Ray Harryhausen brings back Captain Nemo in Mysterious Island; Vincent Price revisits Edgar Allen Poe in The Pit and the Pendulum; James Stewart and Richard Widmark go Western in Two Rode Together; Ben Gazarra and Fredric March go medical in The Young Doctors; William Shatner teaches sex ed in The Explosive Generation; Steve McQueen tries comedy in The Honeymoon Machine; Antonioni goes mysterious in L’Avventura; horrors abound for Barbara Steele in Black Sunday; Jean-Luc Godard invents the jump cut in Breathless; Mr. Ripley shows up in Plein soleil; Albert Finney gets his kitchen sink on with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning; Oliver Reed gets hairy in The Curse of the Werewolf; European kaiju with Gorgo; Henry James gives up the ghosts in The Innocents; Akira Kurosawa meets Macbeth with Throne of Blood; the restored version of Jean Renoir’s 1939 The Rules of the Game gets released; Visconti tells us about Rocco and His Brothers; Poland goes civil — war that is — in the aftermath of WWII in Ashes and Diamonds; and Sam Peckinpah releases The Deadly Companions.

Feel free to add other choices, but for foreign films, please use the AMERICAN release date, as that is how the Academy runs things.

As always, I have much more to say in my book:http://www.amazon.com/WHO-Irreverent-Look-Oscars-Volume/dp/069232318X

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