Okay, maybe the headline is a bit harsh… but, that’s what we’re looking at here. The Best Picture Losers. These are the movies that almost made it. In the 92 years since the first Academy Awards ceremony, it’s staggering to think of all the films nominated for Best Picture; however, every year can have only one. While many are certainly remembered as classics in their own right, understanding these works through a lens on the larger Hollywood community provides another step towards truly understanding this history. No film exists in a vacuum.
Without further ado, here are my Top 5 Favorite Best Picture Losers.
5.) Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Despite Billy Wilder being one of my favorite directors, it took a long time for me to finally tick Witness for the Prosecution off my list (Thanks, TCMFF!) . Thinking back, I had certain preconceived notions as to what the movie was, and to be honest, I was completely wrong. Witness for the Prosecution isn’t just another legal drama.
The movie follows an aging barrister (Charles Laughton) who takes on one last murder trial defending a charismatic young man (Tyrone Power in one of his last roles). The film features a stellar cast, including: Elsa Lanchester, Marlene Dietrich, Ruta Lee and Una O’Connor.
Witness for The Prosecution earned recognition as part of the 1958 Oscars. The film received multiple nominations, but unfortunately wasn’t able to bring home the gold. Fellow nominee The Bridge on the River Kwai proved to be mighty competition and took home most of the big awards that year.
There’s so much happening in this fascinating film (aside from some delicious spoilers, which I won’t go into). Witness for the Prosecution mixes Billy Wilder’s trademark skill into a well-crafted Agatha Christie murder mystery. When you add in the stellar chemistry within this talented cast, particularly the banter between Laughton and real life wife Elsa Lanchester, you have a truly fun movie.
Witness for the Prosecution is available here.
4.) Mister Roberts (1955)
Mister Roberts is a gem of a movie which I’m always surprised I don’t hear spoken about more. I grew up a fan of Jack Lemmon (thanks to a childhood spent watching Grumpy Old Men), so in truth, I can’t remember the first time I watched this classic.
Mister Roberts is a World War II dramedy about a naval officer who’s desperate to break free from his supply ship assignment and actually see fighting. The movie features an all-star cast, including Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, William Powell, James Cagney, as well as a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance from Martin Milner. John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy receive credit as directors.
The film was part of the 1956 Oscars which was… a heck of a year. Marty gave a truly surprising showing, taking the Best Picture and Best Actor awards. Meanwhile, East of Eden and The Rose Tattoo took home other top categories over the course of the night.
Mister Roberts is a beautifully acted film in all its naturalistic power. The movie is based on a novel, and was also a Broadway play before hitting the big-screen. Henry Fonda takes on the lead role of Mister Roberts, a part he also played on stage. However, every member of the cast shows a rare feel for their characters, embodying the overwhelming scope and melancholy of the war. Add this gem to your list if you haven’t seen it.
Mister Roberts is available here.
3.) The Music Man (1962)
I can sit down and watch The Music Man wherever, and whenever it’s on. While I enjoy many musicals, this is one I truly love. The music, the performances, the look. Everything. This is one of only a handful of times where a studio really listened and didn’t destroy a stage musical when it went to the big screen.
The Music Man follows Professor Harold Hill (the incomparable Robert Preston) as he arrives in River City Iowa. He’s a traveling salesman, selling ‘boy’s bands’. However, when he meets the local music teacher and librarian (Shirley Jones), he slowly begins to realize he might be on the wrong path. The Music Man features a superb cast, including: Paul Ford, Hermione Gingold, Buddy Hackett and Pert Kelton.
The Music Man had its work cut out for it during the 1963 Oscars against fellow nominee Lawrence of Arabia. The musical only received a handful of nominations (on top of Best Picture). At the end of the night, The Music Man ended up winning: Best Scoring of Music (Adaptation).
While The Music Man came during the last gasp of the studio era, the musical is one of the best and brightest in Hollywood history. Make sure you check this one out!
The Music Man is available here!
2.) Top Hat (1935)
Top Hat holds a special place on this list thanks to it being the first time I watched Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers together on-screen. This film, along with The Gay Divorcee (their first starring vehicle), will always be some of my favorite musicals.
Top Hat follows Astaire as a song and dance man who falls hard for a beautiful woman who he accidentally wakes up with his tap-dancing (Rogers). Unfortunately, misunderstandings run rampant when she mistakes him for her best friend’s husband (Edward Everett Horton).
It’s truly fascinating to look at the structure of the Academy Awards during the 1930s. The industry has changed so much. In fact, this Astaire and Rogers delight was one of twelve films nominated for Best Picture in 1936. Mutiny on the Bounty took home the big prize with The Informer and A Midsummer Night’s Dream taking home a number of the smaller categories. Top Hat received two other nominations: Best Art Direction and Best Dance Choreography.
Everything in Top Hat is functioning with gorgeous, well-oiled, proficiency. There’s spot-on direction from Mark Sandrich, a vibrant and talented supporting cast and finally the legendary Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers working at the peak of their powers. The is a must-see and an essential for not only musical fans, but fans of Classic Hollywood as well.
Top Hat is available here.
1.) Sunset Boulevard (1950)
This is the second appearance of the legendary Billy Wilder on this list, and to be honest, Sunset Boulevard is probably my favorite of his legendary work
The story follows a writer (William Holden) who stumbles into the driveway of an eccentric former silent film star (Gloria Swanson) who’s trying to make a comeback. She soon ropes him into polishing the script for her next starring vehicle. However, he soon gets more than he expected when their relationship develops to a more personal level.
Sunset Boulevard received 11 Academy Award nominations during the 1951 Academy Awards. All About Eve was the movie to beat that year, but Sunset Boulevard did end up winning Best Story and Screenplay, Best Scoring and Best Art Direction.
Sunset Boulevard struck a chord with me at a young age. It was my goal to be Betty Schaeffer when I grew up. The legendary film is a work of art. While it brings all of Billy Wilder’s usual flair as a writer and director, the legendary performances of both leads William Holden and Gloria Swanson immortalize the movie as a landmark work of cinema.
Sunset Boulevard is available here!
Just Google the history of the Oscars. It’s mind blowing to think of the number of movies recognized by the awards over more than 90 years. While so many are still recognized as classics, there are plenty of pictures which haven’t faired as well with the passage of time. There are so many stories to tell and still so many films left to preserve. This is why film history is so great.
What are your favorite Best Picture Losers? Shout them out in the comments!
Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Studying the contributions of women behind the camera in classic television.
You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!