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 Crash? Oh, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @alexbad.