Revisiting the Academy Awards: 1959

This is the second installment in Wells’s series of Awards Season-themed contributions.

Miriam E. Wells, Ph.D. Student, Department of History

The Best Picture winner of the 32nd Academy Awards was a remake. It is not surprising that Ben-Hur swept eleven Oscar categories in 1959 — the Academy loves a bloated epic, as long as said epic is not science fiction. However, Ben-Hur is not even close to being the year’s Best Picture. In fact, the year’s real winners were not even nominated.

Consider that Alfred Hitchcock’s clever and funny use of Cary Grant in North by Northwest went unnoticed by the Academy. Not only was Grant not nominated in the Best Actor category, North by Northwest was relegated to the categories of Original Screenplay and Art Direction. Yet, Roger O. Thornhill’s faked death at the Mount Rushmore Visitor Center still elicits audience shrieks, and Hitchcock’s cornfield proscenium still enthralls.

The Academy rarely rewards comedy, and especially not wacky, romantic comedy peppered with Doris Day songs, but Pillow Talk really deserves an exception for the 1959 Awards. Of all the ridiculous Doris Day comedies in existence, Pillow Talk is one of the most bearable. Never mind that telephone party-lines no longer exist, or that Rock Hudson and Doris Day come across as besties and not potential lovers. One does wonder how poor Rock Hudson felt about all the gay jokes, although there is a history of Hollywood’s gay actors giving a “wink, wink” in their films to audiences mature enough to handle it.

This picture features two real bright spots. The first is the use of Los Angeles’s Parisian Room pianist Perry Blackwell to sing “Roly Poly” and to begin “You lied! (You dog)!” Blackwell’s conspiratorial encounters with Hudson’s and Day’s characters are so understated that the scenes feel positively racially integrated. The other bright spot is, of course, Thelma Ritter. Thelma Ritter brightens any picture, but here she mitigates the sweetness of Pillow Talk with necessary salty drunkenness. Ritter should absolutely have won Best Supporting Actress.

Speaking of race in films, 1959 was also the year of Imitation of Life, a melodrama calculated to extract maximum tearfulness from audiences. Media historian Susan Douglas notes the saintly “maternal sacrifice” of Annie, who is black, contrasted with the selfish motherhood of Lora, who is white. In addition, Annie’s ungrateful daughter tries to pass for white. Sadly, it is inconceivable that Juanita Moore, who played Annie, would have been considered for a Best Actress nomination in 1959. In retrospect, however, doesn’t Moore’s portrayal of Christlike martyrdom deserve an Oscar?

The most egregious omission in the Best Picture category was Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot. Wilder did manage to sneak into the Best Director category, but could not win against William Wyler (Ben-Hur). Neither could the eternal underdog Jack Lemmon unseat Charlton Heston. More’s the pity. Many people have bemoaned the fact that Lemmon did not win Best Actor for Some Like it Hot, but perhaps it really is not his best performance. Lemmon is an unrepentant ham, and Wilder failed to rein it in for this film. The overacting suits the picture, but it makes it a little hard to watch at the same time. On the other hand, Jack Lemmon’s performance in 1960’s The Apartment is masterful. However, it would be unfair to overlook Marilyn Monroe’s performance in Some Like it Hot. Monroe was a gifted comedienne, a detail too often forgotten by people obsessed with her sex appeal. Besides, Some Like it Hot succeeded in pushing gender boundaries for both men and women — and did it with straight cast members to boot.

Personally speaking, North by Northwest is more likely to get a second, third, or tenth viewing than Some Like it Hot, but it may not have been Hitchcock’s finest directorial hour. Ultimately, Billy Wilder worked much harder to get good performances from his actors, and Cary Grant could probably have stepped up his game a notch. I feel bad for displacing The Diary of Anne Frank, The Nun’s Story, and Anatomy of a Murder from their places on the Best Picture nomination list — but not that bad. As for Ben-Hur, it certainly has its place in the color-cinematography and special effects categories.

Verdict: Some Like it Hot.

  1. mary wilson said:

    I was wild about ancient Rome when i was 9 in 1959 but my parents would not let me see Ben Hur. Why? I still have never seen it. I split a gut over Some Like It Hot, though I doubt I saw it in 1959.. North by Northwest scared me silly, though again, I doubt I saw it in 1959. I have seen both of these more than once.

    • mewsea said:

      Awww! Maybe at 212 minutes, it was just too long for them! I was pretty hard on it in this review, but at the time it would have been visually spectacular.

      Cary Grant has this great ability to appear benign at one moment and sinister the next. He does this really well in Suspicion and Charade, but also a little in NBNW. My favorite line in NBNW is near the beginning, when Thornhill is trying to explain his way out of a reckless driving charge, and his mother says, “just pay the two dollars, Roger.” I also love James Mason, who always played villains but was by all accounts a really nice guy.

  2. eao said:

    It really is such a shame that the Academy doesn’t appreciate comedies more. I mean, there are two best picture winning comedies in the 30s, but that’s basically it for the entire run so far!

    SOME LIKE IT HOT is, in my opinion, only rivaled by some of the Marx Brothers movies for the title of Funniest American Movie Ever Made.

    BEN-HUR, while ridiculously long and not at all subtle, does take well to blu-ray remastering. I saw it that way and the 1950s coloring really pops.

    • mewsea said:

      Howdy! I definitely agree with you about the comedies–also sci-fi. Sci-fi never wins. Is Ben-Hur in Technicolor? I love old Technicolor, personally… it makes people look so *healthy* with all those strong reds! By the way, readers: click eao’s username to read her awesome blog, which also features entries on all the best picture winners over the years!

      • eao said:

        It might be Technicolor. It’s that really distinctive 50s/60s color that’s really really rich and vibrant. Thanks for the blog plug! I’m looking forward to doing the next Best Picture installment after March 2’s Academy Awards – rooting for American Hustle if only because it sounds like it’d be more fun to watch than Gravity or 12 Years A Slave.

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