Oscar Directors: Kramer, Stanley

Fred Zinnemann's early films were produced by Stanley Kramer, who was highly committed to problem films propagating liberal causes, such as racial equality (Home of the Brave, The Defiant Ones), political justice (Judgment at Nuremberg), and interracial marriage (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner). Kramer was one of the first Hollywood filmmakers to make mainstream movies about pressing social issues. Several of his films were nominated for Best Picture, despite unimaginative approaches and flat, static direction.

Ship of Fools was nominated for eight Oscars in 1965, including Best Picture, because it was considered to be “important,” dealing with a group of passengers (“Grand Hotel on water”) aboard a ship bound for Germany in 1933. The movie was pretentious and technically crude and shapeless, yet a number of powerful performances and a symbolic message must have overshadowed its weakness, and the Academy proved again the primacy of subject matter over style and form. Like Zinnemann, Kramer was a “sociological” director, though he lacked the veteran director's command of technical skills.

Zinnemann's humanist approach to filmmaking is almost nonexistent in Hollywood today. In 1986, when British producer David Puttnam (Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields) was appointed chair of Columbia, he hoped to reinstate Zinnemann's kinds of films. As he said, “If I had to characterize the films I like in terms of another filmmaker, they're not unlike Fred Zinnemann's films. They're about people finding within themselves resources they didn't know were there, and coming from the best of them.” Puttnam didn't stay in power long enough to implement his ambitions, and it is doubtful that he would have succeeded even if he had.

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards(NY: Continuum International, paperback, 2003)