Starring Broderick Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge and John Ireland
Screenplay by Robert Rossen, based on the novel of the same name by Robert Penn Warren
Down the years there have been a number of Best Picture winners that look like they were mistakes. In another post, somewhere else on this blog – but not necessarily as part of The Best Picture Project – I outlined “The Little Best Pictures”, or, those films to win Best Picture while still winning three or less Oscars. In every case the film that won Best Picture was not the winner of the most awards that year and won in so few of the important categories that their victories as Best Picture seems to be something of a mistake. All The King’s Men was one of those films.
At the 1949 Oscars, All The King’s Men took gold in just three categories: Best Picture, Best Actor for Broderick Crawford and Best Supporting Actress for Mercedes McCambridge. It was nominated in four other categories: Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay and Best Editing. That it lost the two biggest of those awards – Director and Screenplay – to Joseph L. Mankiewicz for A Letter for Three Wives it almost seems as if Best Picture went to the wrong film. After all, if a film wins in what I would consider the two biggest awards – after Best Picture – how could it possibly not win Best Picture?
All The King’s Men inferiority is further belayed by the fact that not only did it lose Director and Screenplay to a different film, but it was another film entirely – The Heiress – that was the big winner of the night, claiming four trophies. To be fair, All The King’s Men and The Heiress only went head to head in two categories – Picture and Director – but still, the fact that it couldn’t manage to win either Screenplay or Director, and that it was not the big winner for the night, makes the film look like it won Best Picture by accident. Or mistake. Or both.
To be fair, I’ve never seen A Letter To Three Wives or The Heiress – they’re on my to-do list, though not amazingly high on it – so I can’t vouch for whether any one of the three films is better than the other. But if the safe assumption is that All The King’s Men is the better film of the three, I’m left a bit underwhelmed about the Best Picture award and completely justifies the feeling that the 1950s were a bit of a wilderness time for the Academy Awards, when such stellar films as An American in Paris, The Greatest Show on Earth, Around the World in 80 Days, Gigi and Ben-Hur won over such also-rans (or never-rans) as The African Queen (un-nominated), Singing in the Rain, Lust for Life (un-nominated), Touch of Evil (un-nominated) and North by Northwest (un-nominated). In fact, looking at how dreadful the state of the Best Pictures was in the 50s, I can’t help but think that maybe All The King’s Men was the first Best Picture of the 50s.
It seems fair to me that All The King’s Men lost Director and Screenplay because, even though I haven’t seen A Letter To Three Wives, which bested it in both categories, on its own merits, All The King’s Men isn’t worthy of either award. The directing is static, letting Broderick Crawford bluster his way through most scenes, without ever pushing him towards something I’ll call subtlety. And the screenplay is fairly choppy, never really getting the time and POV shifts right – the way it lurched around left me a bit disoriented and scratching my head about how Willie Stark can go from a soft-spoken back-roads rube to a cunningly-cynical political schemer inside of two minutes of screen time. Yes, I know the movie jumps ahead four years in that time, but that it happens in the blink of an eye in terms of screen time, which makes the transition jarring. If you want a massive time-jump in the story, handle it like Citizen Kane did with the scene at the breakfast table.
Perhaps my biggest gripe about the film, though, is that it rests entirely on the performance of Broderick Crawford. Yes, I know he won Best Actor, and yes, I know this is supposed to mean his performance was good, but no, I just can’t buy that. In all of his scenes Crawford either comes on like an idiot hick or a bull in a china shop – there is no in-between. Based on his acting style, half his lines could truly be reduced to some variant of “Aw shucks,” and “Why I outghta…” In many ways, his victory for Best Actor paves the way for Charlton Heston ten years later, in Ben-Hur.
Still, there is one bright spot in the film: Mercedes McCambridge. In many ways her part and Crawford’s part calls for the same things: bluntness, vulnerability, naiveté. That McCambridge nails them all with grace makes Crawford’s failure to do so look all the worse. I can’t help but wonder how she would have done if she’d played Willie Stark.
Only two films based on Pulitzer Prize winning books have won Best Picture. They were Gone With The Wind and All The King’s Men.
For the other winners and films left to see, click here.