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Oscar's Worst

 
 
   
 
And the Oscar for the worst best picture goes to...
 
Over the years, the Best Picture choices for the Academy Award have surprised, stunned and angered many. We are going to focus on a few of the worst. (Personally, I think The Sting in 1973 was bottom of the barrel, but we will focus on a few older films.)

Gentleman's Agreement (1947)
This "groundbreaking" study of anti-Semitism in America won Best Picture, Best Director (Elia Kazan) and Best Supporting Actress for Celeste Holm. The film was widely praised as bold, brave and and powerful. Unfortunately, this flick has aged as badly as any message film in history. Gregory Peck plays a writer who's on to something really big. He will pretend to be Jewish for six months and find out what it is really like. But before he can do that, he must provide us with an unintentionally hilarious scene when he actually looks at himself in a mirror before deciding, yes, he does look Jewish enough to pass! It kind of reminds me of the scene in The Wolf Man when Lon Chaney starts to grow hair in all those weird places.

Based on a popular novel by Laura Z. Hobson, Gentleman's Agreement was one of 20th Century Fox President Darryl F. Zanuck's pet projects. Zanuck, the only non-Jewish studio head, was praised for his bold move, even though Hollywood's Jewish kingpins MGM head Louis B. Mayer and Columbia's Harry Cohn pleaded with him not to make it. The film turned out to be a huge hit commercially and garnered great reviews.

Looking at this film today is a different story. The dated script and the casting of Dorothy McGuire as Peck's love interest don't help. McGuire, who plays an upper-class divorcee with a snooty sister (Jane Wyatt of Father Knows Best fame) is so weak and silly that the audience never pulls for her and Peck to get together. And, honestly, Dorothy always gave me the willies. The only time I ever liked her was in the 1946 thriller The Spiral Staircase, in which she plays a mute servant girl terrorized by a serial killer. (I think it helped that she barely spoke in that film!)

Celeste Holm—who was the original Ado Annie on Broadway in Oklahoma and would find further fame in All About Eve—plays the lovely, liberal Ann. She also loves Greg Peck and is the logical character for him to end up with. Why would he stick with the prejudiced McGuire?

To be fair, there are a few good things in this movie. Anne Revere (who won an Oscar for playing Liz Taylor's mother in National Velvet) is great as Peck's liberal mother. She received a supporting nomination, too, and should have won it over Celeste Holm. Revere was a great actress whose career was derailed by the HUAC Hollywood purge and blacklist. Dean Stockwell is also moving as Peck's son who's called a "lousy kike" by his school mates. But this scene is ultimately ruined when creepy Dorothy McGuire rushes to assure him that he's not Jewish at all! Jewish actor John Garfield (sexy star of The Postman Always Rings Twice) also has a strong cameo performance.

The real irony is that the same year, RKO turned out a film noir called Crossfire that dealt with the murder of a soldier due to anti-Semitism. Tautly directed by Edward Dmytryk with Robert Ryan as the bigot, this film really tackled the issue head-on. However, for gay audiences it is interesting that in the novel The Brick Foxhole (the basis for Crossfire), the soldier is killed because he is gay. Good plots never go out of style, and this film could be remade today. Next week we will focus on a few clunkers from the '50s that took the top prize.

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