In the 1950s, Hollywood faced its first challenge with supremacy with the advent of television, leading studios to use techniques like Cinemascope and Technicolor to lure audiences back to theaters. Some movies were massive spectacles that could only be seen on the big screen, while others were complex character dramas that reflected the changing social mores of the times. Meanwhile, previously popular genres like the musical and the Western were starting to fall out of favor. Of course, the Academy reflected these changes as giant epics, moody character dramas and lavish adventures were given Oscar.
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, All About Eve was a snappy showbiz satire that became a big critical and box office hit while marking a major comeback for Bette Davis. In one of her most iconic roles, Davis was aging Broadway star Margo Channing, who takes a young seemingly naïve girl, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), under her wing only to discover she’s being used as a stepping stone for Eve’s own stardom. With a sharp script written by Mankiewicz, steady direction and scene-chewing performances from Davis and Baxter, All About Eve became an instant classic that won Best Picture over George Cukor’s Born Yesterday, Vincente Minnelli’s Father of the Bride, the massively expensive adventure King Solomon’s Mines, and Billy Wilder’s iconic film noir Sunset Boulevard.
One of the all-time great musicals, Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris solidified the status of Gene Kelly as Hollywood’s top song-and-dance man while winning six Academy Awards. Kelly starred as a starving American artist living in Paris who seeks fame and the amorous attention of Leslie Caron despite her relations with his close friend (Georges Guetary). Based on music by George Gershwin, An American in Paris featured memorable numbers like “I Got Rhythm” and “S Wonderful,” and won Oscar over competition that included the forgotten World War II drama Decision Before Dawn, George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun, Mervyn LeRoy’s Roman epic Quo Vadis and Elia Kazan’s powerful adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.
In a year that saw one of the category’s biggest snubs of all time, Cecil B. DeMille’s lavish ode to the big top took home Best Picture honors instead. With an all-star cast of Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, James Stewart and Gloria Grahame, The Greatest Show on Earth was a massive promotion for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and little else; an enjoyable piece of entertainment that failed to resonate beyond its own time. The film stole the Oscar from more worthy competition that included the classic Western High Noon starring Gary Cooper, Richard Thorpe’s historical drama Ivanhoe, John Huston’s burlesque musical Moulin Rouge and John Ford’s winning romantic comedy The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne.
With 13 nominations and eight wins, there was no doubt that Fred Zinnemman’s From Here to Eternity was 1953’s Best Picture. Adapted from the novel by James Jones, the film focused on the professional and personal troubles of American soldiers stationed in Hawaii in the months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Starring Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Ernest Borgnine, Donna Reed, Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra, From Here to Eternity was a massive box office and critical hit that stood the test of time thanks in part to Lancaster’s roll in the waves with Kerr. The film bested the adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the Roman epic The Robe starring Richard Burton, William Wyler’s great romantic comedy Roman Holiday with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, and the moody Western Shane, starring Alan Ladd.
Featuring Marlon Brando’s greatest performance and one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history, Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront earned a staggering 12 Academy Award nominations and took home eight, including Best Director and Best Actor. Brando starred as Terry Malloy, a washed up prize fighter making a living as a dockworker who’s compelled to testify against the mob after witnessing a murder. An obvious allegory for Kazan’s own testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee, On the Waterfront won Best Picture over Edward Dmytryk’s courtroom drama The Caine Mutiny, Grace Kelly’s Oscar-winning turn in The Country Girl, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and the pleasant, but forgettable Three Coins in the Fountain.
A simple tale about looking for love in the face of loneliness, Delbert Mann’s bittersweet Marty took everyone by surprise after winning Best Picture in 1955. Starring Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine as the titular Marty, a lovelorn butcher living with his mother and resigned to a fate of eternal bachelorhood, the small low-budget film emerged from the Cannes Film Festival to become an international hit and turned Borgnine into a star. Marty won a total of four Academy Awards and won top honors over the Navy comedy Mr. Roberts starring Henry Fonda, Henry King’s romantic melodrama Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Joshua Logan’s adaptation of the stage play Picnic, and The Rose Tattoo starring Best Actress Anna Magnani.
Another head scratcher, Around the World in 80 Days was a fun adventure that has not aged well since its win for Best Picture. Starring David Niven as the globetrotting Phileas Fogg, Michael Anderson’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1872 novel has all the trappings of a grand adventure, but little in the way of character or classic scenes. The film boasts cameo appearances from too many stars to count and managed to snag five Oscars, beating out more worthy competition including The King and I and The Ten Commandments, as well as George Stevens’ Giant starring James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor, and William Wyler’s Civil War drama Friendly Persuasion.
One of the greatest war movies ever made, The Bridge on the River Kwai marked director David Lean’s turn from literary adaptations to spectacular epics. The film starred Alec Guinness as a British officer who leads a group of POWs in a Japanese prison in building the titular bridge while contending with an escaped prisoner-turned-saboteur (William Holden) who happened to be impersonating an officer. A major hit at the box office and one of the first true blockbusters, The Bridge on the River Kwai was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won seven, including Best Picture over the exposé Peyton Place, the Korean War-set romance Sayonara, Sidney Lumet’s gripping courtroom drama 12 Angry Men and Billy Wilder’s excellent Witness for the Prosecution.
While grand adventures and moody character dramas were on the rise in the 1950s, old Hollywood staples like the musical were starting to fall out of favor. Directed by the great Vincente Minnelli, Gigi was set in turn of the century Paris and starred Leslie Caron as the daughter of two Parisian courtesans who falls in love with the wealth, but bored Gaston (Louise Jordan) despite their protestations. The film had several memorable musical numbers, including “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” and won the Oscar for Best Picture over the American-set musical Auntie Mame, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman, the racially charged escape movie The Defiant Ones and Delbert Mann’s relationship drama Separate Tables.
Because of competition from television, Hollywood increasingly made bigger and more spectacular films to lure audiences back into theaters, and there was no grander spectacle in the entire decade than William Wyler’s historical epic, Ben-Hur. Winner of an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards, Ben-Hur was a remake of a 1925 silent film of the same name and starred Charlton Heston as the titular prince turned slave who seeks revenge on his childhood friend (Stephen Boyd), only to find redemption through Jesus Christ. The competition wasn’t close as Ben-Hur triumphed over the courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder, the adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank, The Nun’s Story starring Audrey Hepburn, and the controversial Room at the Top.