Best Picture Revisited: Hamlet (1948)

Many Best Picture winners from Casablanca to The Godfather now seem like obvious choices for the big award. How could the Oscars have dreamed of not awarding Lawrence of Arabia or On the Waterfront? In this column, we’ll revisit the other Best Pictures that aren’t as well-known. Have all the winners held up so well?

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Laurence Olivier’s blonde coiffure is distracting (see above). Pay too much attention to his failed attempt at looking boyish, and you’ll miss his beautiful elocution, his panache and swagger. As director, he releases Hamlet’s inner melancholy upon his surroundings. The camera captures Elsinore Castle in shadow and mist; long, empty corridors keep the characters isolated.

After the acclaim for Olivier’s Henry V, his interest in Hamlet seems logical. This movie swaps out Henry’s vibrant colors for black-and-white, but is no less theatrical. The miniatures filling in for sets are noticeable; the performances feel imported from the West End. No movie stars; Jean Simmons would be, but she’d only had one or two major roles before playing Ophelia. She’s so young and waifish—only 19—that when Larry bellows at her, it’s unsettling. He also plays up his suggestive behavior toward an especially green Queen Gertrude (Eileen Herlie, age 30, eleven years younger than Olivier).

The movie feels old-fashioned, stage-bound, but it helped legitimize Shakespeare on film. Baz Luhrmann and Julia Stiles should be forever grateful. Watch for cameos from Stanley Holloway and Peter Cushing (a.k.a. Grand Moff Tarkin).

Why It Won

Hamlet was an event. The Oscars loved prestige productions in the 1940s, and Henry V was up for Best Picture two years before. Notably, Laurence Olivier’s win for Hamlet was for acting, not directing. Hamlet was primarily a lead actor’s showcase, similar to other forties victors: Going My Way and The Lost Weekend, and the next year’s All the King’s Men, all of which took Best Actor.

Of the other nominees, Johnny Belinda and The Snake Pit had strong leading actresses. The Red Shoes was the biggest moneymaker of 1948, a luscious fantasy that could easily have won in the fifties. But serious films dominated this decade.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is my personal favorite. Work from great movie stars like Humphrey Bogart wasn’t as valued then, not compared to technicians like Laurence Olivier, who so clearly acted for us. But it’s a powerful yarn of the American spirit, capitalism, and greed.

Not Nominated

Howard Hawks’s Red River and its restless masculinity.

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