Diary of Anne Frank, The (1959): George Stevens Oscar-Nominated Drama, Starring Shelley Winters and Millie Perkins

The Diary of Anne Frank, which was nominated for the 1959 Best Picture Oscar, represents director George Stevens at its most earnest and middlebrow. 
His somber approach might have been a combined result of the horrors he had experienced in his military service and perhaps too much respect for the source material.  The Diary was first published as a memoir, then became the source of Broadway play, by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.  Since 1959, several docus and TV movies and mini series have been made on the subject

Stevens’ epic-length saga offers an intimate account of human survival and heroism, centering on the harrowing ordeal and brave behavior of eight Jews hiding in an attic in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam.

While the exteriors were shot in Amsterdam, the rest of the film was made on studio sets. William Mellor’s fluid camera work communicates the muted horror of the prohibitive confinement in a restricted space.

The film’s major flaw is the casting of the inexperienced Millie Perking in the role of Anne Frank since she is the center of the narrative and we experience the ordeal through her eyes. Perkins looks physically right but she doesn’t sound or act right. The part calls for an actress who could make the audience understand and feel the power of her emotional truth, her growing pains, her feelings as a young woman.

Critics at the time pointed out that Millie Perkins lacked the natural glow and exquisite expressiveness that Susan Strasberg (daughter of acting guru Lee Strasberg) had in the stage production. (Ironically, as a screen actress, Strasberg herself lacked those qualities).

The Van Daan couple represents the reality and humanness of the older people in the attic. Shelley Winters gives a flashy, Oscar-winning performance as the crude yet sad Mrs. Van Daan, mother of Peter (Richard Beymer, also in a pale performance).  Winters excels as a simple woman, limited by meager resources who can barely cope with the situation.  Later on, she goes to pieces when her greedy husband wants to sell her fur coat.

To achieve the realistic heft of Mrs. Van Daan, Shelley Winters put on 15 pounds before shooting began, and then as the story progresses and her nutrition drops, she took off 25 pounds.

Her weakling of a husband (Lou Jacobi) is irksomely sluggish and pathetically lax. Mr. Van Daan misses his comforts and food and in the end turns into a thief to fill his stomach.

As noted, Stevens’ direction is meticulous in attention to detail but overall uninspired. For a while, the illusion of action and suspense–despite the constriction of space–capture our engagement, before the movie becomes bloated, overextending its welcome by at least half an hour.

Oscar Nominations: 9

Picture, produced by George Stevens

Director: George Stevens

Supporting Actress: Shelley Winters

Supporting Actor: Ed Wynn

Cinematography (b/w): William C. Mellor

Art Direction-Set Decoration (b/w): Lyle R. Wheeler and George W. Davis; Walter M. Scott and Stuart A. Reiss

Costume Design (b/w): Charles LeMaire and Mary Wills

Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture: Alfred Newman

Oscar Awards: 3

Supporting Actress


Art Direction

Oscar Context

In 1959, William Wyler’s historical epic “Ben-Hur” swept most of the Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.


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