Following the more economical wartime cinema of the ‘40s, the 1950s offered a chance for American filmmakers to revel in their newly self-proclaimed #1 status, ramping up production values and grandness to match their hubris and reach. The Academy followed suit, honoring films that celebrated human triumph, even if some of the best-remembered movies of the decade focused instead on the frailty of an increasingly connected world.
Though the decade’s first Best Picture statuette went to the low-key backstage drama All About Eve (1950), it was a period that rewarded large productions. Four of the decade’s winners were returns to the cinema-as-theatrical-spectacle mindset of the form’s earlier days, which would later morph into the action-thriller extravaganzas we roll our eyes at today. Of these, only two can be said to have held up over time, their monumental scope a necessity for themes of an epic nature rather than a plastic exploitation of the more-is-more mentality.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), a towering work of World War II fiction, and the biblical behemoth Ben-Hur (1959) used their hefty budgets to appropriately convey the largeness of their subjects: POW camp sabotage and Christ Himself. These are stories which could not have been done justice in small-scale portrayals, instead needing the full force of Hollywood to match their ambitions. Conversely, The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), remembered mostly for being the type of movie Cecil B. DeMille would title so, was ranked by Empire magazine’s editors as the 3rd worst Best Picture winner of all time and is widely speculated to have been a political win: DeMille was an aging conservative thriving in McCarthy’s hellscape and was not thought to live long enough to make another film. Interestingly enough, Bridge’s screenplay was covertly authored by two Blacklisted writers who would not be justly rewarded until the 1984 ceremony.
The ‘50s were no different than other decades in Best Picture history in shying away from darker fare, even with the Noir and suspense genres reaching new cinematic heights by marrying their typical aesthetic and thematic trappings to more insidious, more realistic surroundings. No longer a genre of lowlifes and gangsters, these films operated upon the growing paranoia of the United States, a place where no stone was left unturned or unquestioned, and everyone was a potential enemy. Regardless, Noir milestones Touch of Evil, 12 Angry Men and Hitchcock masterpieces Vertigo, Rear Window and North by Northwest were left entirely out of the equation.
Gritty dramas like The Sweet Smell of Success and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole were tepidly received, perhaps for hitting the nail too on the head in portraying America’s greed as its ultimate undoing. Now recognized as major achievements in the portrayal of complex antiheroes, all but Sunset Boulevard – a vicious shattering of the Hollywood myth defeated at the 1951 ceremony by the kinder-to-its-people All About Eve – went unrewarded by the Academy.
Seeing that this was the decade that cemented the notion of Americana as ideal and continued to ride the jingoistic wave of the post-war late ‘40s, it scarcely comes as a surprise that the Academy would want to rise above the grim immorality on display in these films. Still, they were instant classics in which flawed heroes fought back against crime and injustice, though perhaps the idea of crime and injustice even happening in everyday America was too controversial a thought – of the decade’s winners, only On the Waterfront (1954) dove into the underworld of crushed dreams and seedy labor unions.
As the prosperity and numbing cheerfulness of the All-American decade came to a close, so did the Academy’s tendency to reward movies which explored current events. The last four Best Pictures of the 1950s were all glances to the past, a clear signal that, from this point on, joy would have to be reminded and enforced, as the reality of consequence seeped back into the public consciousness. Beginning with the airy adventure comedy Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and excepting 1960’s The Apartment, the Oscar would not go to a present-day picture for another eleven years, instead awarding the golden man to films like the giddy, turn-of-the-century musical Gigi (1958).
Unlike the dazzling An American in Paris (1951), which grew organically from Gene Kelly’s desire to celebrate the Allied victory through transatlantic ballet, Gigi shows a jarring return to Victorian morals and mentality (Maurice Chevalier thanking heaven for little girls can hardly be called forward-thinking). This line of thought would go unbroken until the Oscars were forced to confront reality and reattach itself to its country’s youthful vitality, just in time for the rise of the avant-garde American New Wave of the 1960s.