The British came this year and stole the Oscar. Or so Hollywood pundits of the time would have it. Given that Hollywood voted to give Laurence Olivier a hatful of Oscars for his version of Hamlet, I don’t see how they can blame anybody, but then, logic was never their strong suit.
I’ve never been that particularly impressed with this version as a whole, although parts do indeed appeal to me. Here is part of what I had to say about Olivier’s direction in WHO Won?!? An Irreverent Look at the Oscars, v. 2: 1944-1952: “Olivier makes a number of interesting decisions. His use of voice-overs for much of the soliloquies seems a useful one, although it sometimes does force the actor to keep his face an immobile mask. Part of the difficulty in the voice-overs is that he switches back and forth, but there seems little reason for which part of the speech is voice-over and which spoken. I also question his decision to cut parts of the play, then retain those which could have easily been rendered in visual terms, such as Ophelia’s narration of Hamlet’s behaviors, which Olivier turns into a voice-over, and then has the whole scene rendered as a flashback, which has the effect of turning the actors into puppets. Perhaps the most troubled part of the film comes in the “to be or not to be” soliloquy, which Olivier chooses to preface by sending the camera into the back of Hamlet’s head, even going so far overboard as to superimpose an image of a brain on the fogs and crashing seas below. The entire moment seems, for want of a better phrase, too artsy-fartsy. Added to that, Olivier chooses to indulge himself in overacting at just the wrong moments in the soliloquy, switching back and forth between the spoken word and the voiceover. The entire segment smacks of preciousness and a “look ma, ain’t I smart?” tone that has grated on me ever since I first saw this version in high school thirty years ago. I’d hoped I was wrong when I revisited Olivier’s rendering; if anything, maturity (such as it is) and years of teaching the play have only exacerbated my dislike for his interpretation. A better director, one more focused on both the text and the redirection of the play into a cinematic experience, would have reined in the actor’s overreaching. Olivier can’t do that, because he’s directing himself. Olivier does have moments of visual genius in this movie, as I’ve said; one charming moment comes when the actors arrive, and they barrel into view. The actors are greeted with a humor and poise lacking elsewhere due to the cuts. The play within a play couldn’t be better, nor could the “I will speak daggers” speech up the staircase. If only the whole movie were like that. As it is, Olivier does deserve a nomination for the good parts.”
So a mixed bag, in my opinion.
Here are the rest of your options for what might have won for Best Picture instead, beginning with the other original nominees: Jane Wyman plays a deaf-mute rape victim in Johnny Belinda; the greatest ballet film of all time, The Red Shoes; Olivia de Havilland goes koo-koo in The Snake Pit; and John Huston directing his father Walter in the happy feet dance, while Humphrey Bogart goes slowly mad with greed in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Non-nominated choices include: Ingrid Bergman goes saintly in Joan of Arc; Irene Dunne goes Swedish in I Remember Mama; Barbara Stanwyck is schedule for murder by her husband Burt Lancaster in Sorry, Wrong Number; Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Lionel Barrymore face the evil that is Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo; Jules Dassin and Barry Fitzgerald deliver The Naked City; the seminal Western with John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, Red River; Marlene Dietrich in Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair; Judy Garland and Fred Astaire in Easter Parade; Bing Crosby in Billy Wilder’s The Emperor Waltz; Gene Kelly and Judy Garland in The Pirate; Bob Hope and Jane Russell in the western spoof The Paleface; Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten in the fantasy Portrait of Jennie; Gene Kelly and Lana Turner in the lavish The Three Musketeers; the monster comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein; Vivien Leigh in Anna Karenina; Ray Milland and Charles Laughton in the murder mystery The Big Clock; John Garfield in the film noir Force of Evil ; John Wayne and Henry Fonda in John Wayne’s Fort Apache; Orson Welles’ low-budget, inventive adaptation of Macbeth; Alfred Hitchcock experimenting with long takes in Rope; Frank Capra trying hard with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in State of the Union; Preston Sturges and Rex Harrison toying with murder in Unfaithfully Yours; Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth in the film noir classic, The Lady from Shanghai; and Max Ophuls and Joan Fontaine in the elegant Letter from an Unknown Woman.
Honestly — this has to be one of the greatest years for the movies…EVER.
As always, I have much more to say in my book: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00PKK8MBY
Please vote for your choice for the 1948 Best Picture below!