Oscar: World War II Wins Oscars

A large number of documentaries on the short list of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences deal with the War in Iraq. But what kind of impact would this War have on the feature films nominated for Oscars in 2006 So far two major movies about 9/11 have been made: Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” and Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center.” It remains to be seen whether these films and directors would be honored.

On December 10, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (of which I am a member) chose Greengrass as the Best Director of the Year.

Here are some thoughts about the impact of WWII on the Oscars.

The Second World War, arguably America’s last big “good war,” had pervasive effects on the film industry, influencing movies’ subject matter as well as their style. It’s estimated that between l942 and l945 about one third of Hollywood’s output (500 out of 1700 films) dealt, directly or indirectly, with some aspect of the War. Most of these movies were important as historical rather than artistic phenomena, fulfilling a twofold goal: they popularized the motives for fighting, giving unity of purpose to the War itself, and they served as morale boosters, providing strength and encouragement to the home front. Heavily propagandistic, these movies dealt with timely issues that were of interest to most Americans at the time. And they were experienced–and enjoyed–on a visceral level, without much critical scrutiny.

All of the Oscar categories reflected the impact of WWII, but especially the major ones: Best Picture, Best Director, and the acting awards. As could be expected, the male categories (Best Actor and Supporting Actor) were more affected than the female because the War film has always been a typically “masculine” genre. Indeed, four of the Best Actors in the l940s were chosen for a role in a War-related movie: Gary Cooper in Sergeant York (1941), James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Paul Lukas in Watch on the Rhine (1943), and Fredric March in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

Women, WWII, and the Oscars

By contrast, there was only one Best Actress, Greer Garson, who specialized in playing noble ladies, who won for a movie about the War: Mrs. Miniver in l942. No actress in Hollywood has enjoyed the level of Garson’s support from her studio: She was Louis B. Mayer’s favorite performer for whom he assigned MGM’s best writers to develop star vehicles for her. Mayer was single-handedly responsible, through personal power in Hollywood and MGM’s publicity machine, for getting Garson six nominations in six years, from her first American film, Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939), for a role that today would qualify in the supporting category, to The Valley of Decision (1945).

With the possible exception of Meryl Streep, who received six Academy Award nominations in seven years (and 13 in 27 years), no other actress has risen so meteorically and has achieved so much in so little a time. Streep, like Garson, has fulfilled the dream of every Hollywood actor, namely to become an Oscar-caliber performer!

The only Oscar role to acknowledge the problems of the “career woman,” and to reflect the conflict between domesticity and career, which many women must have faced at the end of the War, was Joan Crawford’s in Mildred Pierce (1945). An ambitious woman, Mildred builds up a chain of restaurants in order to provide her ungrateful daughter (Ann Blyth) all the rewards she was deprived of. But throughout the film she is punished. Her younger daughter dies of pneumonia while she spends her first weekend off from work with her lover-playboy. She then throws herself into a second, loveless marriage with him, and ends up supporting him. At the end, having lost everything, including her business, Mildred goes back to her first husband–and to the kitchen, where she belongs. Mildred Pierce’s message perpetuated the status quo of women in American society, instructing them to stay in their place, or else they will suffer for stepping into men’s domain.

Both Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck had been offered and turned down the role, and both later regretted their decision. The role was then cast with Crawford, who recently joined Warner’s star roster, after being dismissed by Mayer from MGM. Crawford’s Oscar campaign, in the expert hands of her press manager, Henry Rogers, was one of the first–though not last–most elaborate and most expenseive campaigns in Oscar’s history.

WWII and the Best Picture Oscar

Three films about the War won Best Picture: Mrs. Miniver in 1942, Casablanca in 1943, and The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946. Mrs. Miniver was the least distinguished, but it didn’t matter since it propagated the right ideology. The film reinforced the prevalent mood in its description of a “typical” British family during the Blitz. Released in July l942, Mrs. Miniver immediately became a blockbuster, grossing $6 million (equivalent of over $60 million at present). In the 1986 documentary, Directed by Wyler, there’s a nice sequence in which Lillian Hellman recreates her conversation with director William Wyler upon seeing Mrs. Miniver. “Why are you crying” Wyler asked Hellman. “Because,” said the acerbic writer, “it’s such a piece of junk, and it so far beneath you.”

These films suited the nation’s mood, and they were lavishly praised for their patriotic fervor rather than artistic merits. Howard Hawks’s Sergeant York, nominated for 11 awards (but winning two) reflected America’s dominant attitude in July 1941, just months prior to Pearl Harbor. Its hero, Alvin York (Gary Cooper), starts as a conscientious objector and ends up committed to the War, a transformation that articulated the feelings of Americans who initially were reluctant to join the War. Yankee Doodle Dandy, a musical biopicture of patriotic showman George M. Cohan (James Cagney) was released in May 1942, when American soldiers departed to fight in Europe.

It’s noteworthy that Cagney won his Oscar for playing a mainstream role–not for any of his celebrated performances in his specialty, the crime-gangster film (The Public Enemy, White Heat). This is yet another bias of the Oscar: none of the actors who specialized in gangster movies, or excelled in playing villains won the award for such a role. Wallace Beery, Paul Muni, Humphrey Bogart, Ernest Borgnine, and Lee Marvin had to “reform” themselves onscreen before getting the Academy’s approval.

Relevant Pictures

Casablanca, the 1943 Oscar winner, was even more relevant: it was released after Casablanca was chosen as the site of the Allied Forces Conference. The movie had charm due to its glorious cast, which, in addition to Bogart, included Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, and Paul Henreid. And it’s the movie that made Bogart a star, crystallizing his immortal screen image, as Rick Blain, the most famous cafe owner in film history. Casablanca wasn’t a major hit when initially released, but over the years it has become a cult film, and recently was chosen as one of the ten Best American films of all times in a national poll.

Wyler’s Best Years was 1946’s most honored film, receiving the largest number of awards to date, seven regular and two Special. It also became the first film to honor a non-professional actor, Harold Russell, for recreating onscreen his actual experience as a sergeant who lost both of his hands in the War. (The same political motivation was behind the 1984 supporting Oscar, when Dr. Haing S. Ngor, a nonprofessional actor, won an Oscar for The Killing Fields). Best Years captured the mood of postwar America quite effectively: Released in November 1946, the movie’s issues were still relevant, depicting the struggle of many Americans with readjustment to civilian life after the War.

Best Years’s major competitor for Best Picture was Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, now recognized as his masterpiece, though at the time the film enjoyed only moderate success. The glorification of small-town life and the populist values of Capra’s “little men,” were not in tune with the national psyche, and its comparison with Best Years made its sentimental tone even more apparent. It’s a Wonderful Life lost in each of its five nominations, which was a severe blow to the careers of both Frank Capra and James Stewart, who considered that role as his all-time favorite.

Significantly, the Wyler films that won Best Picture and honored him with Best Director didn’t represent his most notable or characteristic work. Hence, Dodsworth (1936), The Letter (1940), and Little Foxes (1941) were nominated for Best Picture and Director, but didn’t win. The most respected filmmaker in the Academy’s history, Wyler was nominated 12 times, the last time for The Collector in 1965. Mrs. Miniver won for political rather than artistic reasons, and the historical epic Ben-Hur (1959), for which Wyler won his third Oscar, didn’t bear his distinctive signature as a filmmaker.