Armchair Oscars – 1958

Best Picture

Gigi (Directed by Vincent Minnelli)
The Nominees: Auntie Mame, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, The Defiant Ones, Separate Tables

Mon Oncle (Directed by Jacques Tati)
My Nominees:  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Richard Brooks), Gigi (Vincent Minnelli), The Horse’s Mouth (Ronald Neame), Touch of Evil (Orson Welles), Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock)


Vincent Minnelli was given three million dollars by MGM to bring Collette’s novel “Gigi” to the screen. The story, which has a beautiful French girl (Leslie Caron) being brought up by her aunt to be a courtesan, is essentially the French equivalent of My Fair Lady. In my opinion, I think it is better than My Fair Lady because there’s a better investment in the characters. I can believe that Louis Jourdan would fall in love with Leslie Caron long before I could find any romantic connection between Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. Gigi was a beautiful Technicolor production with songs from Lerner and Lowe (the same team that put together the songs for My Fair Lady). It was nominated for nine academy awards and won all nine, but for some strange reason, not one member of the cast got a nomination. There was no nomination for Caron, nor Jourdan nor even the wonderful Maurice Chevalier as Jourdan’s rascally uncle who sings “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” a performance that would become his legacy.

Gigi was the only film nominated for Best Picture of 1958 that didn’t have a dark side. The other four all dealt with tense, dark subject matter and I find that this is true of most of the year’s roster of films. My favorite film of 1958 is just the opposite. Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle, like Gigi, is also French and is one of those films that is bright and cheery and as happy as a spring day.

This is the second film from Tati to feature Mr. Hulot, his odd creation first brought to life in the wonderful Mr. Hulot’s Holiday in 1953. In that film, we met Hulot on a holiday at the beach in Brittney, getting into various misadventures as he attempts to relax. In Mon Oncle, he is freed from circumstance and Hulot is let loose in the gadget-happy world of the 1950s. Also, in the previous film, he had no intimate ties. This time we meet his sister Madame Arpel, who worries about him and asks her husband Monsieur Arpel, who is a big man down at the rubber hose factory, to get him a job.

The Arpel home is, in a word, baffling. It is constructed like no other movie set I’ve ever seen – starting with a strange automated front gate that is only accessible by someone inside the house. The front lawn looks like it was borrowed from a board game, with its cement block walkway that winds up to the front step and a yard that is established in colored squares and centered by a ghastly metal fountain in the shape of an upstanding fish that spits water straight up into the air. The fish fountain becomes a running gag as Madame turns on the fountain for guests but turns it off for anyone else. We become so accustomed to her habit of turning the fountain on and off, it leads to one wonderful sight gag as a stranger comes to the gate. Our view is obstructed by the fence and when he rings the bell, we see the water shoot up from behind it.

The house itself has a strange cubic shape with two circular windows near the top. Late in the film, Madame and Monsieur Arpel spy on Hulot who is down at the front gate, and the silhouettes of their heads in the windows look like moving pupils. Their garden is made up of an architecture that doesn’t look like it was built for human comfort. The walkway is gravel with small blocks cemented in the center and the way to the patio is made up of circular concrete on which one has to play hopscotch to keep from ruining the lawn. Their furniture doesn’t look like it was made for humans either, there’s an odd running gag about a cone-shaped wire chair that look like it was never built with no intention on supporting the human pelvis. Hulot becomes the only character in the film with enough sense to put the chair aside and replace it with one that is a bit more reasonable. Hulot comes in and out of the frame, always with this trademark hat, coat, pipe and his lurching walk. He doesn’t quite understand the world he lives in and, unlike most of those around him, seems quite content in his quieter space. He has a quietly beautiful moment early in the film when he opens his window and hears a song bird. He finds that when he turns the window a certain way, the reflection from the sun shines on the bird’s nest and the birds begin singing. Later he adjusts the window like he’s turning on a radio.

He occasionally crosses paths with a young girl who stands outside the tenement. We suspect that she is quietly in love with him and what little contact they have is very sweet. The soundtrack is a dazzling orchestra of odd sounds coming from the world that surround Hulot. There is a brilliant ballet at the beginning as we see a line of moving cars and instead of hearing honks and squeals and motors, it is replaced by a jazz soundtrack which provides jollier noises for turn signals, honks and cars that arrive into the frame. Other odd sounds are provided by gadgets, new-fangled thingamjigs, not realistic but heighted noises that supply a more angular sound. Oddly enough, for all the noise in this crazy little world,

Mon Oncle features a main character who never speaks. Hulot never says a word in the film although those around him are constantly jabbering. What they have to say means nothing if you don’t speak French and, based on the subtitles, doesn’t mean much more if you do. This is a film about images and visual ideas rather than dialogue. It was five years between Mr. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle and if you know what a tireless craftsman Jaques Tati was then you understand why.

Tati worked tirelessly over his shots, his sets, his set pieces so that they were put together in exacting detail. Like Chaplin or Kubrick, he didn’t make a film every year because he wanted to wait until he had all the pieces down to the miniscule detail. Tati never seemed to like tight shots, he preferred wider shots so that everything that happens in the scene appears in the frame. He wanted the entire room to be seen and for the characters to be seen from head to foot. In most films, the camera is interested in the head and shoulders of the person who is speaking with no thought to the space around or behind them. Tati wanted a space where a person doing something was also occupied by something going on behind them.

He also loved to play with our visual perceptions. Take for example, Hulot’s home. It is seen in one very curious shot in which the front of the entire tenement is framed by the camera. Hulot enters the building from a door at the bottom right, and we see through a series of windows, Hulot ascending various flights of stairs and we realize that at least one of the windows is on the floor. As he arrives at the top flight, he crosses a stairwell and enters a door then appears from a walkway on the other side of the set. Looking over the makeup of the building, it did not occur to me until later that entire west side of the tenement is made up entirely of stairs. When he arrives at the tenement at the end of the film, he passes the floor length window and at the same time a woman runs past him wearing a nighty. We only see his feet and realize that he, being a gentleman, has turned around.

What makes the film so special is that Tati creates an entire world, a movable feast of treats for the eye, of an odd assortment of people who move in and out of the frame. His streets are populated by vending carts, automobiles and a happy pack of stray dogs. He packs his frame so full of visual treats that no matter what scene you’re looking at, not one bit of his frame is empty. He keeps the film essentially plotless so that he has more freedom to move his characters and try new things.

What passes for a plot involves Hulot’s relationship with his 10 year-old nephew who is utterly bored by the automated world that enraptures his mother. He escapes the confines of his home to spend time with a group of mischievous boys while in a similar subplot, his dachshund, donning a plaid sweater, escapes to play with the local strays. Mon Oncle, in concept, is reminiscent of Chaplin’s Modern Times. In that film, Chaplin threw the Tramp into the machine age and cast his endless survival skills to the age of gadgets, escalating politics and the never-ending search for food.

Mon Oncle is only similar in that they both take place at a time when human beings are becoming dependent upon absurd kinds of new technology. While the Tramp is nearly killed by this modern age, Hulot lives in it but not of it. Just as he did in his beach vacation and as he would in his next two excursions Playtime and Trafic, he still exhibits an old world style, his pleasant walks, his gentle politeness and his refusal to let the world get under his skin.

Best Actor

David Niven (Separate Tables)
The Nominees: Tony Curtis (The Defiant Ones), Paul Newman (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Sidney Poitier (The Defiant Ones), Spencer Tracy (The Old Man and the Sea)

James Stewart (Vertigo)
My Nominees:
Alec Guinness (The Horses Mouth), Jacques Tati (Mon Oncle), Spencer Tracy (The Old Man and the Sea), Orson Welles (Touch of Evil)

There was something about David Niven that I found irresistible. He was the picture of British refinement, of manner and of style but he had the face of a rascal. He made his film career in light comedies where he was most comfortable and where, it turns out, we were most comfortable with him. He received the only Oscar for which he was ever nominated, but unfortunately it wasn’t for his best role. In Delbert Mann’s adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables, he plays Major Angus Pollack, one of several guests staying in a posh hotel in the off-season, who regales his peers with stories of his wartime days while also harboring a dark secret. I am sure that the academy was just happy to see him take a serious turn but Niven was such a charming actor that watching him stuck in a middling drama is painful. This was a wonderful comedian who should have been rewarded for doing what he did best.

In 1958, my choice for Best Actor did his best. With Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart’s topped an extraordinary post-war career turnaround, going from a light romantic comedies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Philadelphia Story to much darker, challenging material in films like Winchester ’73, Rear Window and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Returning from the war, I think he made himself a better actor. In Hitchcock’s Vertigo he gives one of his most complete performances playing a man who is haunted by the past, haunted by his fears and falls in love beyond reason with a woman who never existed. He plays John Fergusen, “Scottie” to his friends, who was once a police detective until an accident during the pursuit of a suspect caused the death of a fellow officer. Now off the force, he finds himself called back into service by an old college buddy, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) who wants Scottie to follow his wife, Madeline. Gavin quickly dismisses the idea that she may be cheating on him by suggesting that she may be the victim of some form of possession, that a woman from the past may have occupied her body for a brief period.

Jeff is, of course, skeptical but he agrees to follow Madeline (Kim Novak) and see if anything strange develops. He begins in a restaurant where he sits at the bar and observes her table.  There we see a focus in his eyes that suggests that he has fallen instantly in love with this woman. A slow track of the camera reveals Madeline sitting at a table and we spot her through a crowd of people long before the camera reaches her. We see Madeline for the first time, just as Scottie does. He follows Madeline through her day, shadowing her to a museum where she sits in front of a painting of a woman who resembles her; he follows her to a cemetery where she visits the grave of a woman named Carlotta (the woman in the painting) and finally to a tenement which neither she nor her husband recognize.

Scottie meets Madeline, despite his initial scoffing of the idea that she would be possessed by a ghost, he determines to help her unlock this strange mystery. In an extraordinary scene, they visit a forest where she looks at a cross section of a sequoia with the dates of historical events marked on the annual rings. “This is where I died”, she says dreamily pointing to one of the rings. Scottie can’t get her out of his mind, he shadows her to find more information to help her and leads to a Mission with a large bell tower. Climbing the steps of the mission’s tower his vertigo takes over and he can’t make it to the top. Stuck halfway up the stairs, frozen by his fear, he sees Madeline fall past the window to her death.

Wallowing in sadness and misery, Scottie becomes fixated on a woman named Judy (also played by Novak), a brunette who looks exactly like Madeline. He approaches her, follows her to her apartment where she is initially frightened of him. After some conversation, he declares that he wants nothing from her except dinner. She relents. However, the more time they spend together the more obsessed he becomes in turning Judy into Madeline, buying the same suit, giving her the same hairstyle, turning her into the vision of a woman who has captivated him. Only later does she reveal that it was all a ruse, there never was a Madeline and that Judy dressed as this woman and pretended to be her in order to help cover up a murder committed by her husband. The problem is that in creating a vision of this woman, Judy has created a vision that she must now recreate for the man she has fallen in love with.

What makes Scottie so interesting is that he is so fallible. He is made fallible by the pure obsession with recreating a woman who never existed. Nothing he does to Judy makes much logical sense. He is so enraptured by Madeline and so hopelessly fixed on a woman who is willing to play the part. There is a full-blooded passion that burns so deeply in Scottie’s heart that he allows his obsession to cloud his judgment. He becomes so obsessed with making every facet of Judy into the very image of Madeline that he even complains when she doesn’t get the hair just right.

There is a moment of pure filmmaking that comes in the midst of Scottie’s erotic journey. He buys a suit that exactly matches the one Madeline was wearing and asks Judy to try it on. When she emerges, looking like the spitting image of his fantasy woman, we see from his point of view as she stands in a haze and then steps toward Jeff as if stepping out of a dream. Then he frames her face in his hands, then takes her in his arms and kisses her with such passion, such tenderness that it breaks our hearts when we step back and realize what is really at stake here. It is one of the most beautiful moments in the movies but also one of the saddest as Jeff falls into the arms of his fantasy while we stand outside in the reality. We understand that while Judy is the same woman, she can never fully be the woman that she has helped to create in his mind. I never thought that Jimmy Stewart could play such passion. He never seemed more vulnerable, he drops all of his familiar mannerisms and there are moments as we see him looking and thinking, we see that he has fallen so desperately in love with a figment of Judy’s imagination that all rational reason has been swept away.

Best Actress

Susan Hayward (I Want to Live!)
The Nominees: Deborah Kerr (Separate Tables), Shirley MacLaine (Some Came Running), Rosalind Russell (Auntie Mame), Elizabeth Taylor (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)

Ingrid Bergman (The Inn of the Sixth Happiness)
My Nominees: Doris Day (Teacher’s Pet)

I never thought much of Susan Hayward as an actress. She was a competent but none of her performances ever felt natural. You could see her acting. That especially applied to her celebrated Oscar winning performance in Robert Wise’s I Want to Live!, based on the true story of Barbara Graham, a woman of loose morals who tried to clean up her life only to find herself sent to the gas chamber in 1955 when she was (presumably) framed for the murder of an elderly woman.

I Want to Live! is a melodrama from one end to the other. Every scene feels overplayed and hopped up for effect. You can’t help but feel for Barbara but Wise is so determined to pound every dramatic element with a hammer that the movie wears you out. So too does Hayward’s performance which is played with grand broad strokes and very few details. It is hard not to sympathize just a little with her plight but she is so relentless in trying to illicit our sympathy that she kept me at arm’s length.

My choice for Best Actress is Ingrid Bergman who also played a biographical figure, but in Mark Robson’s The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, the results were far more satisfying. No biographical figure could have been further from Barbara Graham then Gladys Aylward, a good-hearted woman who went to China to be a missionary on the eve of the Second World War and ended up guiding 100 Chinese children across the countryside to keep them from becoming casualties of the invading Japanese.

We meet Gladys early in her life, as she arrives at the Missionary Consulate in London to ask the director to make her a missionary to China. She is told that such a mission would be impossible because the country is on the brink of war. Gladys has no experience outside England and isn’t prepared for the harsh conditions that the country is forced to endure. But she is undaunted and determined to make the trip. She gets a job as a maid to raise money for the trip despite the fact that she has no idea where she is going or how she will set about being a missionary. Employed in a large London mansion, she begins borrowing the master’s books on China and educating herself.

When the master catches her he tells her that she only needed to ask and he would have gladly helped her fund the trip into inland China, because he knows a missionary there, and he would be happy to help her. When she gets to China, she meets Ms. Lawson (Athene Seyler), a fellow countrywoman who has been in the country for half a century and hasn’t lost her boundless energy despite the fact that she isn’t a very successful missionary. She owns an inn where she tends to weary travelers and preaches the gospel during their stay.

Gladys is a babe in the woods, completely unprepared for the world she has entered. She has to overcome the distrust of the natives, the language barrier, the practice of dispensing justice (a man is beheaded) but her stubborn determination and faith stay at her side, she and Ms. Lawson transform the tattered inn into “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness” and make it a success. Gladys learns the local customs and becomes a respected fixture in the community, eventually taking over the inn after her friend dies. Gladys ends up helping the British government, under the instruction of a kindly Eurasian British officer named Lin-Nan (Curd Jergens) who assigns her to accompany him to remote towns to see that the law prohibiting foot-binding is being enforced.

Under this prospect, she can also do her missionary work. She becomes a saintly figure, healing the wounded and adopting children that have been abandoned until the number of charges swells to over 100. Yet after the Japanese attack, she has little resources to care for them. Her only hope is to take them on a trek across the mountains to Siam where they will be care for by the British. We can feel Gladys’ passion at wanting to be a missionary and do what she believes is her destiny. The film sees her journey as a growing process. When we meet her in London in 1930, she is young and naive, having no idea of the struggle and culture shock that awaits her, but her tenacity guides her through her difficult transition.

Of course, the plight of a woman saving 100 children from death would spark our sympathy no matter who was in the lead, but Bergman lifts the material and makes us care. She creates Gladys as a lady with a capital “L,” a woman of respect whose struggle we care about. She takes this role above a meager star vehicle and gives Gladys a heart and a mind and a soul. She is a woman bound by faith and morality who makes us believe, as the opening credits indicate “that we are all responsible for each other.” When we get to the end, as she hands over the children, we feel that she is not the same woman we met in the beginning; the journey has broadened her experience and her soul.

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