an american in paris

Best Picture vs. Best Director: Is An American in Paris Better than A Place in the Sun? (1951)

A Place in the Sun

Alex Russell

In 2014 I watched every single Best Picture Oscar winner in an attempt to find the absolute worst of them. I found it: Crash. Most movies that win Best Picture also win Best Director. In fact, from 1927 to 2014 only 24 movies won the Oscar for Best Director without also winning the Oscar for Best Picture. Did any of those 24 deserve both awards? This is Best Picture vs. Best Director, in which we examine the few films to not win both awards and try to determine why the honors were split those years. Today’s movies are An American in Paris (Best Picture) and A Place in the Sun (Best Director), the winners from 1951. Which is the better film?

The Best Director film: A Place in the Sun, which is a retelling of the Theodore Dreiser novel An American Tragedy. Montgomery Clift (who plays the pacifist lead in From Here to Eternity) starts out as a humble worker in his uncle’s factory but reveals himself to be a “climber” over the course of the story. He starts dating one of his peers (Shelley Winters, who is beautiful but like many supporting women of the era is treated as lesser even though her sole negative quality seems to be that she’s not Elizabeth Taylor) and his life is working out well. His downfall begins as he gains some success at work and gets invited to events where he meets a more beautiful, high-society woman (Elizabeth Taylor, who is Elizabeth Taylor) and falls in love. Clift’s character George decides that he has to be rid of his lesser girlfriend so he can marry Elizabeth Taylor. He begins to act shifty and you’d expect his girlfriend to notice, but she still follows him out to a secluded lake for a romantic getaway. Things take an unexpected turn (or two, or three), but the dark heart of man is a powerful thing.

The Best Director director: George Stevens, who won a second Best Director Oscar in 1956 for Giant. The two movies couldn’t be more different. It makes you really consider the concept of “style” for a director, since Giant is a massive undertaking that looks at the long life of one person and A Place in the Sun is a much quieter look at a man’s soul.

The Best Picture film: An American in Paris (read the Worst Best Picture entry here), which I ranked 67th on my list of every Best Picture winner. It’s a silly musical about an American’s romances and art career (kinda) while he’s in Paris. Gene Kelly is a star in it, but the whole thing doesn’t really hold up. Your experience may vary if you can appreciate the 16-minute ballet that closes the film. I cannot.

The Best Picture director: Vincente Minnelli. Liza Minnelli’s father directed two musicals that won Best Picture: Gigi and An American in Paris. They’re both classics (though some critics consider Gigi as a disaster in retrospect), but they may not be for everyone. I found Gigi somewhat charming and more interesting than An American in Paris. They’re both okay.

Did the right movie win Best Picture? No, but I don’t think the right movie from 1951 is either of these. History remembers both of these movies as classics, but 1951 was the year Brando played Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. It didn’t win for Best Picture or Best Director, but even stranger it took home three of the acting awards but not Best Actor. Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden, and Kim Hunter are all superb, but it’s bizarre to see how close the Oscars came to the sweep and that the denial came because Brando didn’t win for one of the greatest roles in history. Of these two, A Place in the Sun is the stronger film. That makes all these awards even stranger, in retrospect.

Just for the hell of it, are either of them worse than CrashOh, no. An American in Paris isn’t for me, but it’s mostly harmless. Critics consider a lot of the character elements in A Place in the Sun differently now than they did in 1951, and while the movie deserves rethinking to a degree it’s still a great watch. Depending on your perception, Clift’s character either slowly reveals his true self or he degrades over time. Either viewing strikes me as correct and I think the dour ending really sells who Clift either always was or has become. There’s lots to consider in whichever view you take.

Best Picture vs. Best Director Archives: The Greatest Show on Earth vs. The Quiet Man (1952) | Wings vs. Seventh Heaven (1931-1932)Hamlet vs. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)An American in Paris vs. A Place in the Sun (1951) |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Worst Best Picture: Is An American in Paris Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1951 winner An American in Paris. Is it better than Crash?

“Well, you do hate musicals.”

I cannot tell you how many times people have told me this supposed fact about myself this year. If you hate a musical, you apparently hate all musicals. This isn’t true for any other damn genre — I hate Crash, if you haven’t picked up on it, but I don’t hate everything vaguely like it — but it’s apparently true for movies with singing and dancing in them.

I don’t! I swear I don’t! I even liked Gigi, and Gigi was BuzzFeed’s worst Best Picture winner ever. I thought it was charming, if a little misguided with regards to message. I mean, you can only sing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” so many times before it starts to sound odd. But as for other musicals, I think I like most of them. I like the ones everyone likes. I kinda hated Moulin Rouge!, but I saw that as a 15-year-old. It never stood a chance.

I’m now at the age where I assume that if I hate something out of my comfort zone, I’m the asshole. I assume that the problem is genuinely with me. I assume that I simply haven’t given myself over to the experience; I haven’t said yes to life. I decided that I was going to say yes to George Gershwin and Gene Kelly.

The result? Did I love An American in Paris? No. I powered through An American in Paris the way someone watches the reset episode of a drama they like. I made it to the credits because I wanted to see what was next. I probably wouldn’t have even finished it if not for this project, but then, that’s the whole point of the thing.

In An American in Paris, Gene Kelly has to dance a lot to delight children, win over a young woman, and discuss love with his friends. There’s a lot of dancing in this movie, which is sort of like saying a restaurant has a lot of food, but I really have to express to you just how much damn dancing is in this movie. There is an entire quarter of an hour of dialogue-less dancing in this film. In a movie that clocks in under two hours, that feels crazy. Gene Kelly is the best there ever was at what he does, but make damn sure you want to see a ton of it.

There is so much music in this — a musical with the creation of music as a story element is laying it on pretty thick — that some songs are interrupted by other songs. A traditional musical would interrupt a story element to cut to a musical number, but An American in Paris interrupts its own music for more music. You got your musical in my musical!

But Gene Kelly is Gene Kelly, so some moments are just “magical” enough to work. He performs “I Got Rhythm” while French children crowd around him and form a call-and-response group. That part really sticks with me, and it’s apparently the only song from the film to make AFI’s top 100 songs from film list. The love is love. It’s not annoying. Maybe I don’t love musicals, but I certainly don’t hate them. I’m lukewarm on the sprawling, ridiculous An American in Paris because I’m not very interested in what it has to say, not because I hate the whole genre.

The Best Part: 

It’s kinda fun, isn’t it? The French kids don’t know any English beyond what they say in the song, either, so now you know that.

The Worst Part: “Risky” is as nice of a word as I can use to describe the ending. I hate this ending. I hate, hate, hate it. It’s not spoiling it to say it ends with a “daydream” sequence that plays out as a ballet. I know it’s iconic and it’s exceptional and dazzling and all that, but it’s exactly what people think of when they say they “hate musicals.” West Side Story is three hours long and nothing in it feels as shoehorned in as the ballet here.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? I’m not a big fan of this one, but I don’t think it would even make my bottom five. The visuals are bright, the characters are fun, and the dancing can’t be beat. I found myself really in love with moments of it, but it couldn’t keep me hooked from start to finish. Only the ballet really bored me, and that brings this all back to a debate had often in this space: is it better to be terrible or boring? We’re rapidly approaching the halfway mark here, and we’re going to have to find a good answer for that by then. I’ll say An American in Paris is better because the highs are much, much higher, but I was just about as angry at that ballet as I was at some of the mild awfulness in Crash. Nothing comes close to that police chase scene in Crash, though, so Crash retains the top (bottom?) spot in a walk.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at or on Twitter at @alexbad.