Thursday Movie Picks 2021: Oscar Winners Edition – Best Director

ThursdayMoviePicksThe Thursday Movie Picks blogathon was spearheaded by Wandering Through the Shelves Blog.

The rules are simple simple: Each week there is a topic for you to create a list of three movies. Your picks can either be favourites/best, worst, hidden gems, or if you’re up to it one of each. This Thursday’s theme is… Oscar Winners Edition – Best Director.

It’s another Oscars edition! This year’s ceremony is already in a distant memory now, though I’m happy to see Chloe Zhao making history as the first woman of color to win best director (for Nomadland) and only the second woman ever to win the award since Kathryn Bigelow did in 2009 for The Hurt Locker. So for this edition, I’m actually not going to pick this year’s winner, actually I’m walking down memory lane and only pick films released prior to 1980.

In any case, here are my four picks in order of film release:

Victor Flemming – Gone With The Wind (1939)

gwtw-poster

I realize that many people find this film problematic but certain art form is a product of its time and just because we appreciate this film doesn’t mean we have to condone its racial prejudices. Now, I was barely a teenager when my late mother brought the VHS and we watched it together, and to this day, every time I watched it, I’m still in awe of its sheer scale. I often wonder just how they did certain complex scenes, with SO many extras… and this was in 1939!

Whether people like the film or not, it’s hard to brush off the monumental artistic achievement in filmmaking in terms of production design, cinematography, sound, etc. and of course, the amazing ensemble cast. we like the film, or not, one has to recognize the greatest achievement, perhaps, of the creative talent of the people working in the movie industry. I’ve talked about this film in this tribute post, I dare say it’s a magnum opus for Victor Flemming and everyone involved. It’s a towering directorial achievement to be sure, I mean the fact that he survived working with powerful, boundary-pushing uber-producer David O. Selznick is quite a feat!

Interesting Trivia (courtesy of IMDb + Wikipedia):
Reportedly, one of the reasons stated by David O. Selznick as to why he fired George Cukor as director was that Cukor, who’s gay, would be unable to properly direct the love scenes between Rhett and Scarlett; hence he was replaced by macho director Victor Fleming. Although he was dismissed from the production, Cukor continued to privately coach both Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland at their request on weekends, unbeknownst to both Selznick and Fleming.


Michael Curtiz – Casablanca (1944)

casablanca-poster

I talked about seeing Casablanca for the first time in 2012 and was worried that given all the build-up, my expectation for it was so high that I was a bit worried I would be let down. Well, I’ve since seen this movie three times and it’s easily my favorite film about love during wartime. Even as time goes by, Casablanca remains an indelible masterwork. I’m glad I got to see this in the theater during the TCM re-release, it still looks phenomenal on the big screen!

Now, per Wiki, Curtiz was already a well-known director in Europe when Warner Bros. invited him to Hollywood when he was 39 years of age. He had already directed 64 films in Europe, and soon helped Warner Bros. become the fastest-growing movie studio. He directed 102 films during his Hollywood career, where he directed ten actors to Oscar nominations, including Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains.

Curtiz-on-set-casablanca
Bogart and Ingrid Bergman with Curtiz

Fun Trivia:
Director Michael Curtiz’s Hungarian accent often caused confusion on the set. He asked a prop man for a “poodle” to appear in one scene. The prop man searched high and low for a poodle while the entire crew waited. He found one and presented it to Curtiz, who screamed, “A poodle! A poodle of water!”

Apparently there is a biopic on him aptly titled Curtiz on Netflix, it’s description says ‘Driven and arrogant, film director Michael Curtiz deals with studio politics and family drama during the troubled production of “Casablanca” in 1942.’ Might be worth checking out for fans of this film!


William Wyler- Ben-Hur (1959)

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I’ve often talked about this film on my blog over the years as this is one of the earlier Hollywood films my late mom introduced me to. I’ve seen it countless times and still bowled over by it every single time. Same with GWTW, the scale of it is simply astounding and this was the time long before CGI was possible. Specifically the chariot scene requiring 15,000 extras!! I had done extras casting for a short film with about 25 people, I can’t even fathom managing THAT many people in five whole weeks!!

It’s not just about the epic action sequences though, I LOVE the quieter scenes that pack an emotional punch, such as the Jesus-giving-Judah-water scene that I’ve talked about in this post. There are SO many indelible scenes I still remember vividly from this Biblical epic that I can’t imagine anyone else but William Wyler winning that year.

Wyler-on-set-benhur
Charlton Heston + Stephen Boyd with Wyler on set

Fun Trivia:
William Wyler was so impressed with David Lean‘s work on The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) that he asked Lean to direct the famous chariot race sequence. Lean would have received full screen credit for the job–“Chariot Race directed by David Lean.” He declined the offer, knowing that Wyler was a truly talented director and could certainly pull it off himself.

The chariot race required 15,000 extras on a set constructed on 18 acres of backlot at Cinecitta Studios outside Rome. Tour buses visited the set every hour. Eighteen chariots were built, with half being used for practice. The race took five weeks to film

David Lean – Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

lawrencearabia-poster

I guess I have a penchant for epic classic Hollywood movies! I wish I had seen this one (as well as GWTW and Ben-Hur) on the big screen. Sir David Lean is known for his legendary long shots, eps. the mesmerizing intro of Omar Sharif‘s character slowing emerging from the mirage. Naturally the film made a star out of Peter O’Toole who’d only been several tv series and smaller films.

As if it wasn’t hard enough to manage filming such a behemoth of a film on location with thousands of extras, the director also have to deal with demanding producers, esp. Sam Spiegel, a notorious perfectionist and micro manager who apparently often complain about Lean wasting money on the project. The two had worked on together on another Best Picture winner, The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Lean-on-set-LawrenceArabia

Fun Trivia:
To capture Jordan’s grandeur, Lean decided to shoot the movie in Super Panavision 70mm. He wanted the largest frame possible.

To film Omar Sharif’s entrance through a mirage, Freddie Young used a special 482mm lens from Panavision. Panavision still has this lens, and it is known among cinematographers as the “David Lean lens”. It was created specifically for this shot and has not been used since.


What do you think of my Best Director picks? Have you seen any of these films?

27 thoughts on “Thursday Movie Picks 2021: Oscar Winners Edition – Best Director

    1. It’s hard for me to pick favorites out of these 4, they’re all phenomenal. It’s interesting that even Wyler hold David Lean in such high regard, but yeah both are legendary directors.

      1. Agreed as I’ve been watching a few of Wyler’s films in recent years as I don’t understand why he’s not in the conversation more when it comes to great filmmakers.

  1. I LOVE Gone With the Wind warts and all. I know it has problems to modern eyes but rather than screaming to the heavens how this depiction or that is wrong I take into consideration when it was made and make allowances for that fact. It’s not like you can go back and change it now so why let that ruin your enjoyment of the overall film. Fleming received sole credit, but many hands laid their mitts on it before it hit the street I believe he did the lion’s share however. It is an awesome achievement. By the way if you ever do get a chance to see it in the theatre definitely do so, it’s a dazzler.

    Your other two epics I’m less passionate about. Ben-Hur is big and sprawling (and the chariot scene can’t be topped) but Heston is such a granite pile in the lead he works my nerves after a while. Stephen Boyd is much better as his nemesis. As you mentioned the cast of thousands is mind-blowing but that was a specialty of the time and a definite plus of the studio system. Most of those throngs were either under contract, so were simply told to report to the set, or the studio had stringers whose sole duty was to wrangle up the masses. It could be done quickly because the mechanism was in place. As far as Wyler’s work goes, he handles the action well but he has many other films I like far more.

    I will grudgingly admit that Lawrence of Arabia is a magnificent looking film with an amazing cast, but it was like Chinese water torture to watch!! And I say that as a big fan of Peter O’Toole, David Lean and almost everyone in the damn thing. Hated it, you would have to strap me to a chair to see it again.

    We have a match!! I couldn’t even tell you how many times I’ve seen Casablanca and it never gets old. I was fortunate enough to see it in the theatre when they had a special showing for Valentine’s Day. Very cool to see it with an audience and how they responded to different parts.

    1. Mwahahaha!! I love that you call Heston a granite pile, but I guess you’re right, his acting seems wooden but I like the character and his transformation so I forgive him for that. I agree Stephen Boyd is amazing and he could’ve likely done the role of Judah wonderfully too. Poor guy has to wear dark lenses to hide his blue eyes which made him miserable!

      Totally agree w/ what you said about GWTW. It’s a product of its time and what we can do is learn from it. Man I’d LOVE to see it on the big screen if I have the chance!

      Lawrence of Arabia’s pacing isn’t great, but I feel like many classic epics are that way so I kind of expected it. It’s not something I’m keen on watching again though. I’ve seen all three films above more than once but LoA is a one-time watch only for me and that’s enough.

      Glad we agree on Casablanca. It’s just such an amazing film that ticks ALL the boxes for me. I love that ending too w/ Claude Rains who’s such a scene stealer in it. Good that you saw it on the big screen, glad I was able to do the same during TCM re-release.

      1. Heston ALWAYS had a stiffness to his work, Gregory Peck had a similar vibe but he had a roguishness that allowed him to relax more if the role called for it-for example his sly gambler in How the West Was Won-with Peck it could also be drawn out by his leading lady which was the case with Debbie Reynolds in HTWWW and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday-but Heston was always the same. That worked to his advantage at times-it was perfect for Moses in The Ten Commandments, both the times he played Andrew Jackson in The President’s Lady and The Buccaneer and Planet of the Apes but just as often it caused him to come across as an obdurate jerk. For me the latter was the case in Ben-Hur.

        1. I’ve only seen Heston in a handful of films but my fave is Ben-Hur as I love the story. I agree he’s great in certain epics where he plays larger-than-life characters. Now, I disagree with Peck being wooden as I have seen him in over 2 dozen films playing various characters in various genres and I find him so versatile. Perhaps I just have a soft spot for him since Spellbound but I think he’s able to play a myriad of characters effortlessly and believably. The only time I find him a bit miscast is in Duel in The Sun as a bad guy, but that movie is ridiculous anyway. It’s still entertaining but in an amusing way.

          1. OY! Duel in the Sun (or Lust in the Dust as it was tagged in the trades) there’s a stinker. It’s a gorgeous looking overlong dog with two completely miscast leads.

            Don’t get me wrong I like Gregory Peck a great deal but an air of resolute decency and a sense of reserve always clung to him which made him completely wrong for Lewt. Had one of two Roberts-Mitchum or Ryan been cast the film might have worked much better (at a more appropriate 90 minutes which the story could have supported not the 2 1/2 hours plus that it is).

            But the big and insurmountable problem with it is the total mess that Jennifer Jones makes of Pearl. Entirely unsuited to the role, she declaims and postures what her idea of a hellcat would be in a part that Ava Gardner could have made come alive without even breaking a sweat.

            1. Lust in the Dust is a more appropriate title! Yeah Jennifer Jones doesn’t look right in the role and she doesn’t feel comfortable in it either. Robert Mitchum or even Paul Newman (who’s dastardly handsome) would fit the role of Lewt better I think.

              Oh I LOVE Ava Gardner and you’re right she’d be great in such a role. I know she and Gregory Peck are friends and I love them in The Great Sinner. It’s so hard to find older GP films and that’s one of my favorites that few people talk about.

  2. I reached back for my other two besides our match. My third is a particular favorite starring my favorite actress-Linda Darnell that served as Mankiewicz’s warm up for All About Eve the next year.

    The Awful Truth (1937)-Leo McCarey-A nearly divorced couple (Cary Grant & Irene Dunne) sense that they are making a mistake. Rather than saying it out loud they resort to outlandish pranks to ruin the new relationships the other partner has started. While it’s true McCarey has three of the best comic performers of the day (Grant, Dunne and Ralph Bellamy) at his disposal his deftness and surety of pace and camera angle capture them at peak performance.

    Casablanca (1942)-Michael Curtiz-Of all the gin joints in all the world Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) walks into cynical ex-lover Rick’s (Humphrey Bogart) with freedom fighting husband Victor (Paul Henreid) while Sam (Dooley Wilson) plays “As Time Goes By” until gendarme Louis (Claude Rains) rounds up the usual suspects. Never has a sturdy directorial hand’s great influence been better illustrated. The filming was famously fraught with complications (the cast went through multiple changes before shooting started, the script wasn’t finished almost up to the final day of filming, writers came and went, two endings were filmed etc.) but that master of all genres Curtiz guided it along seamlessly never letting the havoc show onscreen.

    A Letter to Three Wives (1949)-Joseph L. Mankiewicz-Three well-heeled ladies (Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern and Jeanne Crain) are about to take a boatload of children on a picnic to an isolated island when a letter arrives from their frenemy Addie Ross stating she has run off with one of their husbands…. without naming who. The women spend the day reflecting on whether it might be their man who has taken a powder. Mankiewicz directs his own screenplay with a just the right balance of humor and pathos eliciting superior performances from the cast.

    1. Hey Joel, I haven’t seen The Awful Truth nor A Letter to Three Wives but I just read about the latter as I was researching for this post. I’m really curious about that. It’s amazing that Mankiewicz directed his own screenplay and did it well, the premise sounds intriguing too.

    1. Ahah, I totally understand about GWTW, I think that film rubs some people the wrong way. I wonder if I saw that later in life I might feel differently about it, but when I saw it I didn’t know much about US history (esp about Civil War) so I was more fascinated by Scarlett’s character more than anything.

      Oh, you should place Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia on your blind spots next year, both are well worth your time.

  3. Ted Saydalavong

    I only saw two from your list, Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia. I was hoping that Dolby Cinema or IMAX would release Lean’s epic on their screen someday, I’d go see it.

    1. Oh man, I am waiting for the day they’d release Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen. I’m sure they’d restore it before they do that, so it’d look amazing. Both have amazing scenes made to be seen in as big a screen as possible!

    1. Ahah I’d think you remember watching them if you have. They’re all well worth your time even though they’re long. I feel like back then films have such longer running time.

  4. I love your picks!! Yes we match with Casablanca which is a brilliant film. Conrad Veidt who plays the evil Nazi was actually detained by the Nazis when he went back to Germany in the late 1930s because his wife was Jewish. I read he was Jewish but I also read he was not. I bet Joel can clear that up. Anyway, the film studio came to his rescue and the Nazis had to let him go and he got the hell out of there. I love GWTW and couldn’t have said it better than Joel. It is still the biggest money maker ever if you adjust the dollars to today. Gable was very uncomfortable with Cukor as director and felt the women were getting better shots than he was so he bitched and Cukor was fired. Fleming, Gable’s manly friend was hired. I had to laugh at granite Heston comment by Joel. Ben Hour is excellent and I am actually sick of CGI which is everywhere and some of it looks pretty fake. 2 fun facts…Wyler was an assistant on the original Ben Hur in 1926. When the chariot race was filmed, there was a scene where Wyler thought someone was hurt and he is caught, on camera, running towards the “accident” and it’s caught on tape. Wyler, knowing how square Heston was, told Stephen Boyd to play it up like their characters were lovers…Heston never suspected. I love Lawrence of Arabia and am just reading Peter O’Toole’s biography. O’Toole was legendary for his drinking etc… well, one day, Lean could not find O’Toole or the young lad, whom Lawrence saved from the desert, only to find out that O’Toole introduced the lad to pot and they were stoned to the hilt. I love Noel Coward’s description upon seeing the film…”If Lawrence had been any prettier, it would have been called Florence of Arabia.”

    1. Hey Birgit!! I LOVE movie trivia so thanks for the treats 🙂

      I didn’t know that about Conrad Veidt, that’s super cool.

      I had no idea Fleming was friends with Gable, but that’s kinda egotistical that Cukor was replaced as he thought the women got better shots. I mean the women roles were more interesting in GWTW anyway.

      Ahah yeah I knew about Wyler not letting Heston in on the ‘Judah and Messala as lovers’ bit, I don’t think he’d have taken it well. I believe it’s Gore Vidal who suggested that.

      ”If Lawrence had been any prettier, it would have been called Florence of Arabia.” Mwahahahaha!! So true! His eyes are so blue!

  5. I’ve seen the first two just once quite a long time ago. I don’t remember much of the story nor how the films look just my thoughts on them. Gone of the Wind I remember thinking it was quite a melodrama and way too long. Casablanca that it was boring.

    1. Ahah, a bunch of classic films are overly long, I mean Ben-Hur even has an intermission built in! Casablanca boring?? Say it ain’t so!

  6. A great list! I certainly agree on Gone with the Wind. It is impossible to deny that it was an unprecedented achievement in cinema, production design, casting, acting, directing. Everything. I agree about the racism, but I also think this question must also be considered in a broader picture. Gone with the Wind is one of the most faithful book-to-film adaptations I have ever seen, and seeing it in this light, we can all then ban books by Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Conan Doyle and lots of others, and hence films based on these books. Not only this does not make sense, this also erases a moment in history. We shouldn’t be erasing from history something which we simply don’t agree with anymore.

    1. You’re absolutely right, Diana. We shouldn’t be erasing from history but what it should do is create dialogue about the subject matter and learn from it. The production design of GWTW is truly astounding and even watching it recently I’m still in awe of it.

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