10 Great Best Picture Nominees That Should Have Won

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

An American in Paris, the movie that won Best Picture for 1951, is a classic film. It’s just not a better film than A Streetcar Named Desire. Moreover, the fact that it won the year before may have contributed directly to the lack of a Best Picture nomination for Singin’ in the Rain in 1952.

This is one of those instances where Doc Brown needs to actually exit the DeLorean with our time-traveling list carrier and seize historical Academy members by the lapels. Only the sight of his bug-eyed, frizzy-haired face could impress upon them the warning: “Conserve your votes! There’s a better Gene Kelly musical coming next year!”

A Streetcar Named Desire’s loss can perhaps be attributed to its theater roots and controversial director. This is a psychologically complex film whose virtues were partially discounted because it originated as a stage play and almost has the look of one. Much of it was imported straight from Broadway, with Vivien Leigh bringing her Gone with the Wind luminescence to bear as the only new principal cast member. It wasn’t outwardly cinematic enough…or maybe it just happened to represent a new kind of cinema.

Adding to this is the fact that details of director Elia Kazan’s initial closed-door testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities had already leaked to the press. His later public testimony tarnished his reputation within the industry, but before that, Kazan served as co-founder of the Actors Studio (of Inside the Actors Studio fame). Though it has almost become a byword now, the “Method” school of acting — whereby an actor lives the part, funneling sincere emotions into his or her performance from deep within, sometimes even staying in character off-camera — has given us some of cinema’s greatest performances.

One of those is Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, the abusive, sullying lifeforce prowling A Streetcar Named Desire. His victimization of Blanche Dubois, a strong yet vulnerable woman clinging to her integrity, but unraveling against harsh reality, remains all the more relevant in 2018. Blanche is every woman given a raw deal by society. Stanley’s brute soul cries out across time, “Hey, Oscarrr!”

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

The title says it all. More than just a holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the most life-affirming movies ever made. Carefree and corny at times, grim and pessimistic at others, it’s perhaps best summed up by the scene where the floor suddenly opens out from under its main character, leaving him dancing dangerously close to the edge of a swimming pool. He falls into the pool…but he’s not alone. Everybody jumps in after him.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, it’s understandable, perhaps, that a film called The Best Years of Our Lives, about American soldiers returning home from the war, would take home the Best Picture Oscar for 1946. It really wasn’t until decades after its theatrical release, when It’s a Wonderful Life became a fixture of Christmastime programming, that it found its belated audience on television. Since then, the familiar beats of its last act have been echoing across pop culture.

A despondent banker named George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, contemplates suicide on a snowy bridge, only to have his guardian angel intervene and show him how all the lives he’s touched would be adversely affected if he had never been born. Cynical minds might be inclined to cry “sentimental hogwash” the way Mr. Potter, the richest and meanest man in town, does. The movie itself even considers such perspectives.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a film that goes to some dark places and is not afraid to confront the ugly side of human nature. At one point, having lashed out at his family and berated his daughter’s teacher over the phone, George saddles up at a bar with dark circles under his eyes, where he starts praying under his breath. A minute later, he gets punched in the face for his troubles.

Instead of wallowing in misery, however, It’s a Wonderful Life chooses to uplift. A consummate tearjerker, Frank Capra’s film holds an irrepressible exuberance that simply cannot be denied.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a novel that was banned and even burned in some places around the country, including Kern County, California, just a couple hours north of Hollywood. With the film adaptation starring Henry Fonda trailing such controversy, it’s not surprising that the Academy would once again go with the safer Best Picture option. When people think Alfred Hitchcock, Rebecca is probably not the first title that comes to mind, but that’s the film of his that won Best Picture.

This is one of those years, like the two at the top of this list, where different films won for Best Director and Best Picture. Hitchcock would go home empty-handed every time he got nominated, whereas John Ford would scoop up the second of four trophies here, the most of any director in Oscar history.

The Grapes of Wrath follows the plight of the Joads, a family of down-and-out “Okies:” sharecroppers kicked off their tenant farm in the dust bowl of Oklahoma. Overloaded with people and possessions, everything they have left in the world, their truck sets out across Route 66, migrating west, lured by fliers for fruit-picking work, the promise of a better life. What they find, instead, are transient camps where wage offers are unfair and trigger-happy sheriffs gun down innocent bystanders.

The film came at a time when there was a sharp political divide in America and social justice was an important issue. Describing it that way makes it sound like it could have come out yesterday. It doesn’t take Bruce Springsteen singing about the ghost of Tom Joad to illustrate this movie’s continued relevance.

What makes The Grapes of Wrath so timeless is that it’s a film about the resilience of the human spirit in the face of hardship. Glimmers of hope and unbearable loss shine through its characters’ monologues as if indeed “touched” by something greater. The movie is full of glassy-eyed faces whose yearning still manages to be felt across the decades.

In the end, the history of the Best Picture award and the Oscars, in general, is as much a chronicle of cultural conditions and Academy politics as it is a chronicle of artistry.

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