Yey, we have now come to the year of 1961. This is quite a significant year because it was the year that saw the release of my favorite American film: West Side Story. My history with this delightful film really began back in 1998 after I watched Titanic sweep the 1997 Oscars. It was the first Oscar ceremony that I saw from beginning to end, and instantly transformed me into an Oscar buff. I quickly memorized the list of the 70 films at the time to win Best Picture, and then set off a quest to watch all of the Best Picture winners. I decided to start on films that my parents owned, and of those West Side Story was the oldest, so it was the first I watched. At that time I had a bit of contempt towards the movie musical, finding them to be unrealistic and boring, so I wasn't quite expecting much from it. It ended up taking me two sittings to finally watch the 2 1/2 hour film, but when it was done I was struck by the stark contrast between the energetic choreography of the first half and the grave solemnity of the second half. I quickly watched it again, this time in one sitting, and it soon became my favorite film. I watched it a total of ten times by the end of 1998. It remains one of the few Best Picture winners that I saw at least five times, and the only one I saw at least ten.*
*The other Best Picture winners I saw at least five times include Casablanca, On the Waterfront, Midnight Cowboy, Annie Hall, Amadeus, Platoon, Crash, and The Hurt Locker.
And of course West Side Story
made a splash in the film world as well when it was first released 37
years prior. It opened to great reviews and was a box office smash,
finishing second in domestic gross behind only Disney's 101 Dalmatians. And unlike Disney's animated classic, West Side Story was well represented at the Oscars, picking up 11 nominations, tying it with the Nazi court drama Judgment at Nuremberg for most nominations. The other nominees for Best Picture include Fanny,
the film adaptation of a Broadway musical - that was itself based off
of a non-musical French play - with all of the songs removed, the
adventure epic The Guns of Navarone, and the Paul Newman billiards classic The Hustler. All but Fanny received corresponding Best Director nominations. The fifth spot went instead to Federico Fellini for La Dolce Vita.
West Side Story
dominated the awards from the very beginning. It captured Best Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, and all three of the Color technical awards. The Hustler won Best Black and White Cinematography and Art Direction, while Best Black and White Costume Design went to La Dolce Vita. The Audrey Hepburn romantic comedy Breakfast at Tiffany's won Best Scoring of a Non-Musical as well as Best Original Song for "Moon River." The Guns of Navarone won an Oscar for its Visual Effects. Ingmar Bergman's psychologic drama Through a Glass Darkly won Best Foreign Language Film, the second straight year one of his films won.
West Side Story's string of success eventually ran out. It suffered its first loss in a crowded Best Adapted Screenplay category that featured four of the five Best Picture nominees (as well as Breakfast at Tiffany's, which was nominated over Fanny). Judgment at Nuremberg ended up taking home the Oscar. Splendor in the Grass, Natalie Wood's other major film of the year, won Best Original Screenplay.
Both West Side Story and Judgment at Nuremberg as well as The Hustler had been well represented in the acting categories. Four of the five nominees for Best Supporting Actor came from those three films, with Montgomery Clift nominated for Judgment at Nuremberg as a tragic witness, George Chakiris nominated for West Side Story as the fiery Shark leader Bernardo, Jackie Gleason nominated for The Hustler as billiards champ Minnesota Fats, and George C. Scott nominated (against his will) for The Hustler as an unscrupulous manager. While the supporting roles in The Hustler had aged the best, people were drawn in to the Chakiris's raw energy in West Side Story and he won the Oscar. His West Side Story co-star Rita Moreno had a far less contentious win for Best Supporting Actress.
The leading categories were just as interesting, especially since West Side Story was nowhere to be seen in them. Star Natalie Wood did get a nomination in Best Actress, but it was for Splendor in the Grass instead. She was going against Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's and Piper Laurie in The Hustler, but in a shocker all three lost to Italian film star Sophia Loren, who became the first person to win an acting Oscar in a foreign performance
when she won for Two Women. The Best Actor race was equally compelling with Paul Newman in The Hustler squaring off against Spencer Tracy and Maximilion Schell in Judgment at Nuremberg, where they played the presiding judge and lead defense attorney. In the end the relatively unknown Schell defeated film icons Newman and Tracy.
Despite its loss in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, nothing was going to stop West Side Story in its trek to winning the top awards of the night. And it did, capturing the Oscar for Best Director for co-directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins and later Best Picture. It still managed to make quite a bit of history with those final two wins. It became the first film where multiple directors were nominated together for the same film. Robbins had been the visionary behind the film, but his perfectionism left the production over budget and behind schedule and he was fired. Yet his vision was visible in so much of West Side Story that he was included in the nomination alongside co-director Robert Wise, who took over the entire production with Robbins's dismissal. Similarly, the Best Picture win left West Side Story with ten Oscars, only one behind Ben-Hur for the all-time lead. In the fifty years since, Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King joined Ben-Hur with 11 Oscars, but West Side Story remains the only film to win exactly 10.
Meanwhile, five other films were perfectly happy with winning one Oscar. The problem is they were all nominated together...in the Best Animated Short category.
Where Can I Watch It?
Disney has been notorious for keeping their films off online video sources, but they've let this one up for three years, so hopefully it'll stay that way.
Chuck Jones's alleged rules for these Road Runner films that "the audience's sympathy must remain with the Coyote." These films may be pure comedic genius but because the Road Runner is destined to win, I don't think I'll ever fully enjoy them.
Where Can I Watch It?
Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met" segment of Disney's Make Mine Music, about a whale who dreams of stardom. Nelly actually achieves stardom, and unfortunately all of the luggage that comes with it. The film does a great job tracking Nelly's progress, from her unexpected discovery to the rapid progression of her fame, and then from the development of a scandal and the cost it had on her career. Despite the fact that she is an unbelievable character, Nelly becomes a believable celebrity because it's similar to many that we see about in the tabloids. Another part that makes it so believable is from the great storytelling. It plays out as like a mockumentary, putting extra emphasis on her discovery and the scandal. The animation is decent a mix of detailed animation with some of the techniques used in limited animation such as using colors and shadows to establish emotions. Veteran voice actress Gloria Wood is also great as the titular character. Nelly's Folly certainly bucks the trend of some of the more established Warner Bros. cartoons, but it's the sort of daring film that has come to exemplify the work of Chuck Jones.
Where Can I Watch It?
The Pied Piper of Guadalupe
Where Can I Watch It?
Warner Bros. has been more vigilant in keeping this film off YouTube, probably because of these negative racial stereotypes. It is still on a Romanian video site. The embed does not work, so that's all you'll have. Live with it.
Surogat (The Substitute)
Where Can I Watch It?
Well, these are the five nominees. Only one will go down as being an Oscar winner. In my opinion it should go to one of the two films that stands out from the others: Surogat and Nelly's Folly. They both excel in the realm of storytelling. I find Surogat to be just a little bit better in its visual design, which puts it over the top for me. Apparently it did for the Academy as well, as they awarded it the Oscar, making it the first foreign production to win the Oscar for Best Animated Short. It came only a year after the first foreign nominee, which as we'll find out has been lost in the sands of time. But that's a story for another time, like next week. For now let us celebrate the nominees of 1961.
My rankings (by quality)
Surogat > Nelly's Folly > Beep Prepared > Aquamania > The Pied Piper of Guadalupe
My rankings (by preference)
Surogat > Nelly's Folly > Beep Prepared > The Pied Piper of Guadalupe > Aquamania