Armchair Oscars – 1950

Best Picture

All About Eve (Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
The Nominees: Born Yesterday, Father of the Bride, King Solomon’s Mines, Sunset Blvd.

Sunset Blvd. (Directed by Billy Wilder)
My Nominees:
The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston), The Black Rose (Henry Hathaway), Born Yesterday (George Cukor), Destination Moon (Irving Pichel), Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer), Winchester ’73 (Anthony Mann)


Very often,in making my choice for Best Picture in each year, the academy’s choice is usually as different from mine as night is from day. 1950, however, is different. For this year, the academy chose Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, a glorious satire of the theater involving a famous stage actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis) who is somewhere north of 40 and feels her age when the title upstart schemes to steal her career. My choice is Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd, a glorious satire of Hollywood involving a once-great silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who is north of 50 but has gone mad under the delusion of her own fame and the belief that her comeback is imminent.

Both films are about women who once basked in the glow of superstardom (one on the stage and the other in film) but have begun to experience the ravages of age and the sad decline of a once brilliant career in an industry that hungers for youth and beauty. I like both films equally but if I am given a choice of which film I would rather spend an evening with, I would choose Sunset Blvd, because it is such an oddball experience.

Sunset Blvd is, at its core, a haunted house story where the ghost is a woman who is so lost in the luster of her fame that the line between reality and fantasy has been dusted away. Our pathway through this story is provided by luckless Joe Gillis (William Holden), a hack screenwriter whose only current progress is an ever-growing pile of unpaid bills. Ducking into a driveway to avoid the repo man he assumes that the big, moldy old house is empty but finds that it is occupied by Norma Desmond (silent film great Gloria Swanson), a once-great silent film star. He recognizes her: “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.” Wide-eyed and looking down the end of her nose, she corrects him: “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.”

She hires him to write her comeback, an adaptation of “Salome,” that he convinces her will be an easy sell to a studio. It is a lie, of course, Gillis just needs the money. Gillis knows what Norma hasn’t quite been able to accept that her best days are long gone, no one remembers her, and her delusions of a comeback are ridiculous.

It is probably unwise to feed Norma’s delusion. but we sense that it is keeping her mind together. She was once the queen of silent pictures but is now a lonely relic who lives up in her dusty old mansion and nurses the luster of her faded image. All that holds her together are delusions of her purported comeback fed by mysterious volumes of fan mail that still come to her door. There are hints of a budding May-December romance as Joe humors the old lady and then begins to resent himself and what he’s become (a kept man), when she blossoms and grows bolder. She’s not dull to be with, she is always willing to entertain him with her outdated skills and her old movies (they watch Swanson’s 1929 film Queen Kelly – which was directed by Erich von Stroheim who plays Desmond’s butler Max), and she teaches him the tango, purportedly taught to her by Valentino. Her delusions are further extended to her expectations as she is always waiting for Cecil B. DeMille to cast her in his next picture.

The key character in the film is Joe but the key element to Sunset Blvd is the relationship between Norma and her faithful butler Max, whom we find out was her first director and her first husband. It is touching when we find out that he has been feeding her delusions for years, writing fan mail so that Norma won’t think that her glimmer has faded. In revisiting this film, I began to wonder how unhealthy it is to feed one’s delusions in this fashion but then I wondered about the person Norma would become if the rug were pulled out from under her. It is sad and strangely beautiful that Max has returned to this house, acting as servant, not only attending to her immediate needs but attending her emotional needs as well. In the end, when news cameras come to report on her arrest, she thinks DeMille has come to shoot the picture. Lost in the world of her madness, Max allows her vision to continue.

Joe isn’t persuaded so easily. He doesn’t realize that madness has occupied her mind and thinks that her cure is only to grow up and start acting her age. In the film’s cruelest piece of dialogue, she threatens to kill herself and he tells her, “Oh, wake up, Norma, you’d be killing yourself to an empty house. The audience left twenty years ago.” She refuses to leave her delusions, but Joe has no qualms about leaving her. She can’t and she kills him (I am not giving anything away, the film opens with his body floating face-down in her pool).

Sunset Blvd has been credited as black comedy, but I see it more as a great example of film noir. The main character, Joe, is not a lovable guy. Like Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff in Wilder’s Double Indemnity, he’s a sad sack with a boring job that he is no longer very good at. He attaches himself to a woman that can only mean bad things for him but is good for a steady paycheck. He’s the classic noir protagonist, a nice but weak guy who goes where the money is and pays the price for it.

Best Actor

José Ferrer  (Cyrano de Bergerac)
The Nominees: Louis Calhern (The Magnificent Yankee), William Holden (Sunset Blvd.), James Stewart (Harvey), Spencer Tracy (Father of the Bride)

Jimmy Stewart (Harvey)
My Nominees:
Marlon Brando (The Men), José Ferrer (Cyrano de Bergerac), William Holden (Born Yesterday), William Holden (Sunset Blvd.), James Stewart (Winchester ’73), Spencer Tracy (Father of the Bride)


It is rare that an actor can put a stamp on a literary character so indelibly that it not only defines their career but forever changes our perception of the role. Bela Lugosi is the very embodiment of Count Dracula, Humphrey Bogart is Sam Spade and Basil Rathbone is forever Sherlock Holmes. This too, applies to José Ferrer who, now and forever, owns the part of Cyrano de Bergerac. By 1950, Ferrer had perfected the part of Rostand’s charming swordsman, born with an oversized proboscis, who possess a gift for words but fears that the beautiful Roxane will find him grotesque.

Ferrer began playing the role on stage in 1946, and the following year was given a Tony award for his performance. He played the role again in 1949 in a television play just before starring in Michael Gordon’s film version which brought him his only Oscar. He became the first actor to win the Tony, the Emmy and the Oscar all in the same year (though not for the same role). He would play Cyrano many more times in his career but none was more beloved than the one in Gordon’s film. He had a broad personality, a deep and resonating voice and a formidable screen presence.

He was a good actor but sadly he is just about the only thing that I can remember about the film. The other performances in the film are ordinary and the story doesn’t really come alive. That’s not his fault, I still give him a nomination, but I would have liked to have seen his performance in a more robust production.

I am glad that, of his three nominations, this was the one that brought him the Oscar. For 1950, however, I am granting my Best Actor award to Jimmy Stewart. I’ve already chosen him for his defining role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and his best performance in It’s a Wonderful Life, but now I get to choose him for no other reason than he is just plain fun as Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Mary Chase.

Harvey is pure silliness, but its success lies solely on Stewart’s shoulders. He plays Elwood, a thorn in the side of his family members, first because he drinks too much and second because of his constant companion, a six-foot invisible rabbit named Harvey. Elwood is the only person who can see Harvey, but he assumes that others can as well.

His sister Veta (Josephine Hull) gets fed up with his delusions about Harvey and decides to have him committed. Through a series of events, both fortunate and unfortunate, Elwood ends up on the outside and she ends up on the inside. Meanwhile his happy demeanor makes those around him start to believe that they actually see Harvey as well. Thus, Harvey becomes an allegory about tolerance and acceptance. There are reasons for us not to like Elwood, but he carries a good-hearted philosophy about his unseen companion: “Science has overcome time and space. Well, Harvey has overcome not only time and space, but any objections.”

What makes Harvey work is Jimmy Stewart whose personality is so infectious and whose good humor is so genial that we could believe what he tells us simply because he himself seems to believe his own delusions without straining too hard to defend them. Obviously, a drunk couldn’t be this pleasant, but this Elwood Dowd, we assume, could be charming doing anything.  His delusion isn’t exactly one that would make anyone concerned for his safety, it is more of a genial kind of madness.  When questioned about his affliction by the doctor who is examining him, he sums it up beautifully: “I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.”

Best Actresses

Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday)
The Nominees: Anne Baxter (All About Eve), Bette Davis (All About Eve), Eleanor Parker (Caged), Gloria Swanson (Sunset Blvd.)

Bette Davis (All About Eve) and Gloria Swanson (Sunset Blvd.)
The Nominees: Anne Baxter (All About Eve), Bette Davis (All About Eve), Eleanor Parker (Caged), Gloria Swanson (Sunset Blvd.)

1950-BetteDavis 1950-GloriaSwanson

I have seen Born Yesterday at least twenty times and I am always grateful for Judy Holliday’s performance. As Billie Dawn (a role she played for three years on the stage), the dumb blonde girlfriend of a wealthy slob who hires a writer to smarten her up, it is wonderful to see her character blossom, not just under the book learning, but the flowering of her own worth. It is just lovely to see her evolve from “I’m stupid and I like it” to “I know there’s a lot better life then the one I’ve got”. Judy Holliday is one of those actresses you wanted to hug. She had such a lovely open face and a sweet baby doll voice and makes Billie a little girl who grows up over the course of her journey.

Born Yesterday is, of course, the film that would define Judy Holliday. Sadly, it forever stranded her in the image of the “quintessential dumb blonde” which I think is a little unfair. She was really very intelligent in real life and her previous and subsequent roles reveal an actress with a very nice range. I have given her a nomination for Born Yesterday and also for later performances in The Solid Gold Cadillac, It Should Happen to You and an Armchair Oscar for The Marrying Kind in 1952. It pains me not to select her as my Best Actress here. I tried my best to find a reason for not taking away her Oscar, but there were just two others that I couldn’t ignore.

Yes, my selection is a tie and for a very specific reason: The two performances that I have selected are so close in theme that it is difficult for me to select one over the other. So for this year, I am selecting Bette Davis for All About Eve and Gloria Swanson for Sunset Blvd.

Both Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson play characters whose circumstances were reasonably close to themselves. They were past 40 (Davis was 42, Swanson was 51) and dealing with the inevitability of age in an industry that prefers its female stars to float somewhere between 18 and 30. In the case of Margo Channing in All About Eve. Davis is a celebrated stage veteran who takes pity on a worshipful fan, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), who arrives at the stage door one night in a battered coat and a silly hat.

The kid spins her unhappy story and admits that she idolizes Margo even to the point that she’s seen her performance in “Aged in Wood” more than fifty times. Her ego properly stroked, Margo gives the kid a job as her personal assistant and eventually the kid works her way up to being her understudy.

As Eve begins to win the hearts of the theater community, a natural defensiveness begins to boil up in Margo. This young girl of youth and beauty represents something in Margo that is quickly slipping away. She becomes angry, childish, and her hatred for Eve becomes a kind of obsession. During Eve’s birthday party (her best scene) she gets drunk and lays out bails of honest and brutal comments.  She is adamant that this a night in which she intends to misbehave and famously warns her colleagues: “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to a bumpy night.”

It is all a scheme, of course – Margo doesn’t know that Eve’s hard-luck story is a fabrication, that she is using her hero worship to tunnel her way into the theater community in order to steal the spotlight and win Margo’s circle of friends away from her. Strangely enough, it is in the middle of this competition that Margo has a moment of clarity. Her friend Kate (Celeste Holm) schemes for her car to run out of gas so that Margo will miss her performance and that Eve will go on as her understudy. In a startlingly honest moment, Margo comes to a moment of deep revelation when she realizes that within a decade, her name will become a relic. Once the spotlight has turned away to younger and sharper actresses, Margo Channing needs to be more than just a name on a billboard.

“Funny business, a woman’s career,” she says “The things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman. There’s one career all females have in common – whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And, in the last analysis, nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed – and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman. You’re something with a French provincial office or a – a book full of clippings, but you’re not a woman. Slow curtain. The End.”

What I have come to understand about Margo Channing and Eve Harrington is that Margo has come to a moment when she realizes that she needs something more than just the life in the lights. She needs to be a human being who isn’t a star, and doesn’t live off public adoration.  I compare her with another character Davis would play, that of Baby Jane Hudson in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, a film that she made 12 years after All About Eve. In that film (for which I also gave her my Armchair Oscar), she played a once-beloved child star who has long been forgotten once the luster of her fame faded away. The difference is that where Baby Jane foolishly believes that she is due for a comeback, Margo accepts the fact that when her fame is slipping away, she needs a fulfilling life off-stage.

Norma Desmond, on the other hand, actually has more in common with Baby Jane. She is a once-great silent movie star whose glimmer faded years ago and now lives out a pathetic existence surrounded by the relics of a long-forgotten time in the spotlight. Now past 50 and nursing her faded career, she is seemingly unaware that she has passed out of public knowledge. Either she isn’t aware of her faded glory or refuses to admit it. Upon meeting hack screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), she is told, “I know you, you’re Norma Desmond, you use to be in silent pictures, you use to be big.” Peering at him wide-eyed down the end of her nose, she informs him, “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small”

There is something in Norma’s eyes that suggests that she has lost touch with reality. She rarely leaves her home and is fueled by fan mail that mysteriously arrives at her door. She revels in the fact that once her career is back on track, she will show this misguided industry what a real star looks like. The problem is, nobody cares. Norma never comes to this realization and lives on the unwavering believe that Cecil B. DeMille will show up at her front door and give her a close-up.

What is interesting about Norma is that, beyond her misguided fantasies, she isn’t dull to be around.  She regales Joe with stories from her career and her pictures.  She shows him how to tango, a skill she supposedly picked up from Valentino.  Joe allows her to live in her fantasies mostly because she’s paying him and entertains her dellusions.  However, it is only too late that he comes to understand that Norma’s fantasies are far more dangerous than he realizes.

In an industry that – past and present – values youth and beauty over age and experience, these two performances are the best examples of a slipping-down image, of women who were once illuminated but now find themselves standing in the shadows. Channing ultimately and very touchingly begins to accept the inevitable while Desmond’s delusion continues even unto a murderous end. While it is clear that Norma will end up in a madhouse, I’m not sure where Margo will end up. We don’t want to believe that she will go peacefully into that good night (this is Bette Davis), but we are certain that whatever she does, she won’t go without a fight.

Home | What is all this? | Contact Me

2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004 | 2003 | 2002 | 2001 | 2000 | 1999 | 1998 | 1997 | 1996 | 1995 | 1994 | 1993 | 1992 | 1991 | 1990 | 1989 | 1988 | 1987 | 1986 | 1985 | 1984 | 1983 | 1982 | 1981 | 1980 | 1979 | 1978 | 1977 | 1976 | 1975 | 1974 | 1973 | 1972 | 1971 | 1970 | 1969 | 1968 | 1967 | 1966 | 1965 | 1964 | 1963 | 1962 | 1961 | 1960 | 1959 | 1958 | 1957 | 1956 | 1955 | 1954 | 1953 | 1952 | 1951 | 1950 | 1949 | 1948 | 1947 | 1946 | 1945 | 1944 | 1943 | 1942 | 1941 | 1940 | 1939 | 1938 | 1937 | 1936 | 1935 | 1934 | 1932-33 | 1931-32 | 1930-31 | 1929-30 | 1928-29 | 1927-28 |

Contact me @