oscars 2019

What the 1948 Best Picture Race Has in Common With This Year’s Competition

Gentleman’s Agreement and Crossfire. Photo: Shutterstock

What an “Oscar movie” looks like depends on whom you ask, and it’s shifted a lot over the years. But it means something for a film to win Best Picture, and that meaning often has political implications. The past few Oscars have especially been dominated by debates about whether the Academy has been awarding the right movie (and ergo, right message), which can feel like a distinctly modern problem born out of a polarized post-2016 climate — especially with multiple nominees making racism, sexism, and other weighty topics their central issue. But these discussions are much older than they appear, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the 1948 ceremony, when two movies about the same social problem competed for Best Picture.

Both well-liked on their 1947 release, Crossfire and Gentleman’s Agreement tackle anti-Semitism, but their tones could not be more different. While one presents a pessimistic view of postwar America, the other offers the hope of racial harmony, with plenty of teachable moments along the way. Through its victory, Gentleman’s Agreement would provide a story template for many contentious Academy favorites of the future, as well as a winning campaign strategy.

Crossfire was the first to hit theaters in July of 1947, but its story began in 1945 with the publication of The Brick Foxhole. Richard Brooks’s novel examines homophobia in the military, weaving several stories around the murder of a gay man. RKO tried to adapt it almost immediately, but got an unequivocal “no” from the censors at the Production Code Administration, the forerunner to the MPAA ratings board, which unilaterally approved or rejected movies for wide release. Given the Production Code’s strict rules on depictions of homosexuality — basically, don’t talk about it — the story seemed like a nonstarter. But the studio tried again on the strength of a pitch from producer Adrian Scott, who suggested changing the murder victim to a Jewish man, and the central social problem to anti-Semitism.

With this switch, Scott tapped into another issue that postwar America was reluctant to address. Despite the rosy perception that the U.S. had stamped out intolerance and fascism abroad, the country hadn’t seriously reckoned with its own bigotry. According to historian Leonard Dinnerstein, anti-Semitism actually rose in America in the two-year period following World War II, as colleges quietly set limits on Jewish students and some neighborhoods tacitly refused to sell property to Jewish families. “Anti-Semitism is not declining as a result of Hitler’s defeat,” Scott wrote in his pitch memo. “[And] anti-Semitism and anti-Negroism will grow unless heroic measures can be undertaken to stop them. This picture is one such measure.”

Scott had already secured director Edward Dmytryk — a man known for moody noirs like Murder, My Sweet — and he’d soon have an impressive cast, including Robert Mitchum as a police investigator, Gloria Grahame as an alluring witness, and Robert Ryan as the sadistic killer Montgomery. Crossfire was shot like a film noir and budgeted like a B-movie. The movie opens on a fatal beating, played out in the shadows to obscure the killer’s identity. It becomes clear, however, that he is a military man. Per the PCA’s request, Crossfire emphasizes that this killer is no ordinary soldier, but a volatile anomaly. Still, the movie hammers home its message in a sermon delivered by the police captain (played by Robert Young), who connects nonviolent discrimination to hate crimes. “This business of hating Jews comes in a lot of different sizes,” he says. “There’s the ‘You can’t join our country club’ kind. And ‘You can’t live around here’ kind. The ‘You can’t work here’ kind. And because we stand for all these, we get Monty’s kind. He’s just one guy, we don’t get him very often, but he grows out of all the rest.”

Before Crossfire hit theaters, the filmmakers screened for multiple preview audiences — including some specially invited Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic groups — to gauge the potential blowback. But the movie was widely celebrated, frequently described as “hard-hitting” or “courageous” in enthusiastic reviews in trades like Variety, Photoplay, and Motion Picture Herald. One Photoplay reader claimed that she took her entire high-school citizenship class to see it. The somewhat scrappy film was shaping up to be a solid Oscar contender, but four months later, another serious movie about anti-Semitism came along, one with more money and more awards-friendly sheen: Gentleman’s Agreement.

Gentleman’s Agreement, based on Laura Z. Hobson’s best-selling book, takes a different approach to a similar story. This time, there is no shadowy intrigue or mystery to solve. Instead of one incident, the film follows investigative reporter Phil Green (Gregory Peck), who pretends to be Jewish for six months to expose anti-Semitism in America. Over the course of the experiment, Phil encounters smiling hotel clerks who just can’t find him a room and schoolyard bullies who taunt his young son. He gets so woke so quickly that he and his fiancée Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), a nice lady who hates bigotry but never challenges her sister’s anti-Semitic friends, nearly break up. They manage to patch things up only after Phil’s (actually) Jewish friend talks to Kathy about how silence functions as complicity, and she decides to speak up.

Helming the film was Elia Kazan, a well-respected Broadway director whose first few films (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Boomerang) were already getting Oscar attention. Gentleman’s Agreement also had a heavyweight producer in Darryl Zanuck, the 20th Century Fox exec with considerable industry clout. Zanuck used his standing to lobby the PCA for more leniency, particularly when it came to language. Thanks to Zanuck’s efforts, the characters in Gentleman’s Agreement were able to say blunter, more hateful words than the ones in Crossfire, but that didn’t necessarily make the movie blunter. While Gentleman’s Agreement is emphatic in its condemnation of anti-Semitism, the movie ends on a much more optimistic note of peaceful coexistence, with previous prejudices buried and two happy couples poised to become neighbors. Aside from a near fistfight, it’s devoid of violence, focusing instead on exclusion from hotels, country clubs, and publishing jobs — or, as New York Times critic Bosley Crowther caustically phrased it, “petty bourgeois rebuffs” that pose “no inquiry into the devious cultural mores from which they spring.”

Crowther’s comments aside, Gentleman’s Agreement enjoyed a pretty glowing reception. It was hailed by Variety as “one of the most vital and impressive and stirring [pictures] in Hollywood history,” often paired with Crossfire in discussion of the industry’s progress. But only one could be the Oscar front-runner, and Gentleman’s Agreement quickly jumped ahead in the race. Zanuck and Fox openly campaigned for the honor, referring to reviews of the movie that “forecast its annexation of the Oscar.” When the nominations were announced in February 1948, Gentleman’s Agreement dominated with eight nods, the most for any film that year. Crossfire picked up five. By mid-March, just days before the awards ceremony, Variety was calling it for Gentleman’s Agreement. The movie would go on to claim Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress for Celeste Holm, who plays Phil’s like-minded friend Anne Dettrey.

But that same Variety report made a telling reference to the competition. “Though it was believed that ‘Crossfire’ would make a showing, it’s believed that because the producer (Adrian Scott) and director (Edward Dmytryk) are under political fire, even the ‘liberals’ here have shied away from casting their ballots in this direction,” the paper noted. Just a few months earlier, Scott and Dmytryk had been called to testify before the House of Un-American Activities Committee over their past involvement in the Communist Party. They had refused to answer questions, were held in contempt of Congress, promptly fired by RKO, and put on the Hollywood blacklist. The controversy left many in Hollywood tongue-tied and skittish, especially as Crossfire stayed in the Oscar race. When MPAA president Eric Johnston accepted a humanitarian award on behalf of RKO production chief Dore Schary for Crossfire, he praised the film without once naming its producer or director — a move that “caused considerable comment,” by Variety’s account.

Fast-forward to now, and we’re hearing strange echoes of this unusual Oscar race. There’s another director no one wants to name, this time for reasons that have nothing to do with communism. As Rami Malek has picked up awards for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, he’s steadfastly refused to thank Bryan Singer, the director who was fired mid-production and is currently facing allegations of sexual assault. The charges, which span decades of abuse, are devastating, and not at all comparable to the supposed “crimes” of Scott and Dmytryk, who simply went to a few meetings. But their early example illustrates how Hollywood has never quite known what to do when the director of an Oscar movie complicates the picture. If Malek — or the editors and/or producers of Bohemian Rhapsody — win on Oscar night, will they continue to pretend that Singer doesn’t exist?

But the loudest echoes come from the contrast between Green Book and BlacKkKlansman, two movies that, just like Crossfire and Gentleman’s Agreement, have wildly different ideas on how to depict bigotry. Green Book thinks unlikely friendship can solve racism. It spells out its message of tolerance in conversations between Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and Frank Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), speaking to a presumably white audience that, like Frank, might come to the movie with some blind spots. This approach has much in common with Gentleman’s Agreement, which sets up situation after situation where Phil questions a comment or behavior that never phased him before he adopted his Jewish alias. In doing so, the movie invites viewers like Phil — i.e., gentiles — to apply that same scrutiny to their everyday lives.

BlacKkKlansman expects a little more from its white allies, because it takes place in a world where racial violence is a visible and lethal threat. While Crossfire tries to solve a murder after the fact, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and Philip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) in BlacKkKlansman are trying to prevent future killings. It means putting their own lives on the line every time Ron takes another call with David Duke or Philip steps into a basement with members of the KKK, and the movie never lets you forget the consequences of not actively fighting back — whether it’s in the mention of a bomb or a shot of a burning cross.

Will the Academy prize one approach over the other with a Best Picture win? Maybe the better question is how we’ll remember both films 60 years from now — and what the winner will say about the era that honored it.

What the 1948 Oscars Race Has in Common With This Year’s