Armchair Oscars – 1954

Best Picture

On the Waterfront (Directed by Elia Kazan)
The Nominees: The Caine Mutiny, The Country Girl, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Three Coins in a Fountain

Rear Window (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
My Nominees:
The Caine Mutiny (Edward Dmytryk), On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan)


For 1954, I am choosing Alfred Hitchcock’s voyeurism over Elia Kazan’s politics and this was not an easy decision to make. This is the reason that the business of the academy awards is more or less superfluous because how could anyone compare these two great films? Both are great on their own terms. The academy’s choice was On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan’s expose of the dirty politics of a labor union among dock workers in Hoboken, New Jersey. This is very much a film of it’s time especially after Kazan spoke up to the House Un-American Activities Commission during the Communist witch hunt. This film was his answer to why he spoke up.

On the Waterfront is the more important film. Hitchcock, on the other hand, created a masterwork of pure filmmaking and when it comes down to deciding which film I could easily watch, right here, right now, I choose Rear Window.

I consider myself a student of Hitchcock. His films are pure, with little confidence in symbols and egghead analysis. It is said that he treated his actors like cattle but the payoff is that he treated his audience like gold. He made his films for the public, he made them entertaining and he made films with characters that at least approximate human intelligence.

Rear Window is mounted on an idea of complete simplicity. A man is trapped in one location, an island – in this case, a wheelchair. Jimmy Stewart plays L.B. Jefferies – Jeff to his friends – a traveling photographer who is in a state of confinement after an accident. A brilliant tracking shot gives us the entirety of his predicament as we see his broken camera and a photo of an airborne racecar tumbling right at Jefferies’ lens.

Jeff’s days of confinement are spent staring out of his window, which like all others, are open due to the intense heat. He takes daily inventory of the tenants in the apartments across the tightly packed courtyard. His travels haven’t given him much time to get to know his neighbors. There’s the lady he calls Ms. Torso, a party girl who has a steady stream of gentlemen callers. There’s the couple who live on the top floor who lower their dog in a basket to the garden below. There’s Ms. Lonelyhearts, a sad spinster who has dinner with imaginary dates or gets dressed up to go to the restaurant across the street and pretend she’s expecting someone. There are the newlyweds who pull the shade and rarely come up for air. There’s the frustrated musician whose labor bears no fruit. And there’s burly Mr. Thorwald who has an invalid wife and a marriage that seems to consist mainly of tolerance.

The habits of Jeff’s neighbors become routine and then one day he notices that Mrs. Thorwald has disappeared. Later that night, he sees Mr. Thorwald wandering in and out of his apartment during a rainstorm. Jeff’s curiosity centers on a few vital clues that lead him to believe that this man may have killed his wife. First comes a large suitcase, then the appearance of a saw, then a change in the arrangement of Thorwald’s flowerbed.

Jeff’s mounting suspicions come only from what he observes from his window. He’s in a wheelchair so his visual plane is limited and Hitchcock never allows us to see anything that Jeff can’t see. We become participants because Hitch puts us in the wheelchair with him. Close-ups are provided first through a large pair of binoculars, then through Jeff’s telephoto lens which allows us to see with clarity. There is no musical score (the only music comes from the musician’s apartment) so all of the sounds are natural. This allows the sounds coming from Thorwald’s apartment to be muted so that we think we know what we are hearing, but we aren’t sure. We strain to listen, to hear some hint of what is being said, but it is to no avail (closed captions don’t help).

Jeff’s state of immobility is the anchor of the story. Everything that Thorwald does seems to make sense if one just rationalizes it long enough. When he binds a trunk with heavy ropes and then has it picked up, we suspect that it contains his wife’s body. When Mrs. Thorwald’s purse appears in a window we suspect foul play because what woman would leave it behind? When Jeff’s detective friend goes to investigate, he comes back with a very reasonable, rational explanation that punches a hole in all of the evidence. Yet we have been drawn in, and we have invested so much in Jeff’s belief that we become a participant ourselves. Lisa (Grace Kelly), Jeff’s gorgeous fiancé, and Stella (Thelma Ritter) his level-headed nurse, at first scold him for peeping on his neighbors but eventually they become participants themselves. They, in a sense, become our point of view, disgusted by what Jeff is doing but eventually curious.

This is a film of limited characters, and one of those characters is the setting itself. It is important that the set feel like an additional character. The courtyard and the building across the way create a feeling of tight, closed-in space. It was a brilliant touch to set the film in the heat of summer so that all those windows are opened so that we get the noise of each apartment and we are able to peer in on each tenant. We can’t see the street on the other side, since it is obscured nor can we see the other tenements on Jeff’s side of the building. We see only what we need to so the mystery is held in our minds just as it is in Jeff’s mind.

Rear Window is Hitchcock at his best, toying with our expectations and then not only giving us what we expect but a great deal more. He is a puppeteer pulling the strings in such a way that the ending doesn’t come as a surprise but doesn’t come to any false conclusions. The final confrontation with Thorwald is not just tossed into the plot, it is built on everything we’ve seen before. Hitchcock famously said that he played his audience like a violin and with Rear Window, we like being played.

Best Actor

Marlon Brando
(On the Waterfront)
The Nominees: Humphrey Bogart (The Caine Mutiny), Bing Crosby (The Country Girl), Dan O’Herlihy (Robinson Crusoe), James Mason (A Star is Born)

Jimmy Stewart (Rear Window
My Nominees:
Humphrey Bogart (The Caine Mutiny), Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront)


Far be it from me to take anything away from the great Marlon Brando – and I’m not being cynical. Brando was part of the new generation of actors who brought Lee Strasberg’s method acting style to film, using a naturalistic feel to his performance to better replicate real life. Out went the old theatrical gestures and in came the “go with it” kind of acting style. He never used this to better effect than in On the Waterfront, playing Terry Malloy, a dock worker who dreams of being a prize fighter, and gets into trouble when he witnesses the murder of two of his corrupt boss’s hired goons.

I liked Brando’s performance. It is an example of pure acting (he practically invented it), but I think my choice for Best Actor had a more difficult task. Jimmy Stewart, in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, eeks out one of his best performances while almost completely confined to a wheelchair. Due to the complexities of the plot, Stewart’s performance doesn’t get enough praise (he wasn’t nominated for either an Oscar or a Golden Globe), but I think that L.B. Jeffries may be just as interesting as any of the great characters that Stewart played.

L.B. Jefferies is a busybody, a man who spends his career staring through the lens of his camera. The theme of the film is how his nosy nature gets him into trouble with his next door neighbor when his confinement leaves him with nothing else to do. The foreshadowing of his lack of self-preservation is signaled right at the beginning as we see a series of photos that end with a picture of a tumbling race car headed right toward Jeffries lens, then his broken camera, then a shot of his cumbersome cast. We know that he is a man who has a nose for trouble, but we also sense that he is a man who doesn’t know when to quit.

He also seems to be a man who doesn’t know what’s good for him. Over his shoulder for nearly the entire film is his girlfriend, a breathtaking beauty named Lisa (Grace Kelly) who want him to settle down and get married – preferably to her. But Jeff has itchy feet, he’s a man who likes to be in the thick of things and Lisa’s plans don’t fit with his. Jeff continues Hitchcock’s theme of confinement. Most of his male characters are confined by something – Norman Bates is confined by his mother, Scotty Ferguson is confined by his fear of heights, George de Winter is confined by secrets about his dead wife. Jeff is stuck in that wheelchair but has the itch to want to know what’s going on in the world. Within his small window, he finds his nosy nature drawing him to the business of the neighbors.

Jeff is probably the most ordinary of characters that Stewart ever played. In most of his post-war roles, the character is either haunted by his past or comes upon a revelation that becomes an obsession. He plays the latter here, a man who just likes to people watch. It is interesting that he and Hitchcock were able to combine all of these character elements into a character who 99% of the film is in the same room. Now that’s talent.

Best Actress

Grace Kelly (The Country Girl)
The Nominees: Dorothy Dandridge (Carmen Jones), Judy Garland (A Star is Born), Audrey Hepburn (Sabrina), Jane Wyman (Magnificent Obession)

Judy Garland (A Star is Born)
y Nominees: Grace Kelly (Dial M for Murder), Grace Kelly (Rear Window), Debbie Reynolds (Susan Slept Here)


The story goes that on the night of the 27th Annual Academy Awards, Judy Garland – who was nominated for her performance in A Star is Born – was in the hospital having given birth to her son Joey. Television cameras had been set up in her room so that she could give her acceptance speech from her hospital bed if she won. When Grace Kelly was unexpectedly declared the winner, the crews immediately dismantled their equipment and cleared the room without a word of comfort for her loss nor congratulations on the birth of her son.

In a way, that kind of defines how Judy Garland was treated by the industry for most of her life. She had been a child actor, the youngest member of The Gumm Sisters kiddie act when she was a young child, billed as “The Little Girl With the Great Big Voice”. In her teens she would find herself under contract to MGM and under the thumb of the bullish studio boss Louis B. Mayer. She became a movie star in the series of Andy Hardy pictures and found her legacy at 17 in The Wizard of Oz.

The studio worked her day and night, giving her drugs to put her to sleep at night and further drugs to wake her up in the morning. The image-conscious publicity department hounded her about her appearance and her weight while she was already deeply insecure about these things in the first place.

By 1950, the pills had turned to an addiction and it was beginning to affect her work. After a disastrous shoot on Annie Get Your Gun, MGM deemed her unmanageable and fired her. No one seemed to care that her distractions at work came from the fact that she had recently broken off her relationship with husband Vincent Minnelli and then suffered a nervous breakdown which led to her attempted suicide.

When MGM dismissed her in 1950, it was the first time since 1934 that she was without studio support. She went on the stage and had a successful tour for the next four years and when she came back to Hollywood it was on her own terms. She formed her own production company, Transconda Enterprises with George Cukor and husband Sid Luft and began to put together a remake of the Janet Gaynor classic A Star is Born. The end result wasn’t met with great support, as exhibitors complained when the film ran over three hours, a running time that Warner Bros. executives demanded cut by at least 30 minutes. Those cuts took the guts out of the film and studio boss Jack Warner decided not to sink a single dime into promotion. The film flopped at the box office.

In spite of the box office failure, most were certain that Judy would win the Oscar for her performance. The movie showed that, despite her personal problems, she was still a powerhouse performer. When she lost the Oscar, most were outraged. Groucho Marx called it, “The biggest robbery since Brinks!”

The surprise winner for Best Actress was Grace Kelly in George Seaton’s joyless backstage snoozer The Country Girl. Pried from a play by Clifford Odets, it tells the story of a washed-up alcoholic showman named Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby) who is given the opportunity to revive his career through the efforts of director Bernie Dodd (William Holden) who puts his reputation on the line to help him and then spends the rest of the movie shouting at him. In the middle of these shouting matches comes Grace Kelly (unattractive and dowdy), who plays Crosby’s long-suffering wife Georgie who crabs at the director while he crabs at her husband.

Grace Kelly was a luminous presence in the movies, beautiful, intelligent, and talented. Yet in the year of her double success with Hitchcock, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, the academy gave her an Oscar for one of the least impressive performances of her entire career. Perhaps the academy was giving her credit for taking an unglamorous role – she wore thick glasses and little makeup – but I cannot understand why they were not willing to welcome back Judy Garland for, arguably, the best performance of her career.

Garland is wonderful in the role of the unfortunately named Esther Blodgett, a small-time showgirl with a band who has a great big voice and an amazing stage presence. During a show one night, a drunken actor stumbles out and begins to imitate the dancers. Esther improvises and dances him offstage. The man is Norman Maine (James Mason), once a box office champ whose star has begun to fall due to his age, his carousing and his alcoholism. Even while intoxicated, he charms Esther, using her lipstick to draw their initials on the wall in the middle of a heart.

Later, having sobered a bit, he sees her in a club singing “The Man that Got Away.” He’s charmed by her stage presence and introduces himself. Something in his eyes tells Esther that this isn’t a pass or a glib compliment; there is sincerity in his voice. This is the thing that will stay with her all through the remainder of their relationship. What he sees in her is a woman who is a born performer, a woman who is emotionally generous and someone who will not judge him.

Using what little pull he has left with the studio, Norman gets Esther a contract with a studio and her career takes off. The studio puts her through the rigorous beautifying ritual including wigs, a false nose, a false chin and a new name, Vicky Lester. Amused by the studio meddling, Norman removes all the applications and the putty but leaves the name.

The romance blooms and they get married in private, under an assumed name. Esther’s career takes off and she becomes a star almost overnight. Meanwhile, Norman’s career is rapidly deteriorating, his contacts want nothing to do with him, the studio won’t hire him and he is made to look like a heel. He begins to realize, very quickly, that all he really has in the world is Esther’s support. She refuses to devalue him even when a drunken incident lands him in jail. Deep down inside, Esther knows that Norman is the reason for her success and she knows he still loves her. There is never a moment when the two have a screaming match (though we expect it), she knows his faults and won’t devalue his support of her even after he stumbles drunk onstage during The Academy Awards after Esther wins an Oscar and ruins her moment. All those around Norman have given up but Esther stays by him.

There is a spark in their relationship, we know they love one another and the film doesn’t shy away from all the reasons. We feel the romance between them. That’s especially true of a brilliant scene in which Esther shows Norman the production number she’s been working on, an around-the-world number called “Born in a Trunk” as she dances around their apartment practically using every object – the couch, the chair, the lamp – as a prop. There is a vibrant joy and energy and the smile on Norman’s face is real. There are moments when Esther performs (and she exudes effortless joy) that Norman sits back and simply smiles, admiring her.

The ending is one of the saddest, most touching that I can remember. After having spent time in jail, Norman knows that he will continue to be an albatross around Esther’s neck. He decides to end it all and walks into the ocean and dies. The papers the next day report that it was an accident and a heartbroken Esther still stands up for him. Returning to the stage, she tearfully tells a waiting crowd, “This is Mrs. Norman Maine!”

Judy Garland had an ease on screen, she had a wonderful screen presence that made you believe she was having as much fun performing as you did watching her. A Star is Born showed that even after all of her real life problems, she was still a brilliant actress. It makes me sad the film under-performed because it kept her away from the screen for another six years until a surprisingly good performance in Judgment at Nuremberg (and another acting nomination). But who knows where the success of this film may have taken her? We’ll never know.

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