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This year marks the 60th anniversary of the 26th Academy Awards ceremony, which honored the best films from 1953. The ceremony was dominated by the five movies up for Best Picture, with the shadow of Fred Zinnemann's From Here To Eternity looming largest. Another shadow: the blacklist, which even lead to one winner not getting his award until decades later. But this ceremony is still one of the greatest, with all five Best Picture nominees still widely regarded as classics.
Let's start with the acting class, and what a class it was. All four categories featured a nominee from From Here To Eternity and the film swept the Supporting categories. The movie revitalized the career of Frank Sinatra, who, by 1953, had had been failing in both movies and his music career. On The Town was a long time ago and he needed anything. He had nothing to lose by playing the wise-cracking Pvt. Angelo Maggio, who has a dangerous love for fun. Out of the nominees, Ol' Blue Eyes gave the best performance, although Jack Palance's vicious gunslinger in Shane was a fun role. Donna Reed won Best Supporting Actress for playing 'Lorane,' a club girl who gets paid for dancing with soldiers. It's actually a smaller role, but against type. After all, Reed was the all-American girl who sang “Buffalo Gals” with Jimmy Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life.
The leading categories were difficult. Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster likely split the vote between Eternity lovers, so the award went to William Holden for Stalag 17. Like Stewart's win for The Philadelphia Story, this could be seen as an apology win, since Holden didn't get the Oscar for Sunset Boulevard. Even if Holden himself didn't think he deserved it, he really did. Billy Wilder's film about a WWII POW camp in Germany is one of the legendary director's best and Holden gives the performance of his career as the guy his fellow inmates think is telling the Germans about their escape plans.
Deborah Kerr should have won Best Actress for her performance in Eternity. But then came along this young Belgian actress named Audrey Hepburn in William Wyler's Roman Holiday. Hepburn looked like no one else in film history and her American debut was enchanting. She played a princess who wanted a taste of the real life in Rome and Gregory Peck was the man to show her. The movie remains an endearing, innocent classic and was one of the five films nominated for Best Picture.
Speaking of Roman Holiday, the film found itself at the center of the blacklist. Dalton Trumbo, one of the famous Hollywood group that refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee during McCarthyism, wrote the film. But he was blacklisted and wasn't supposed to be working. He used a “front” to get the script – which has absolutely nothing political in it – produced and ended up winning the equivalent of today's Best Original Screenplay (then, it was called 'Best Writing – Motion Picture Story). Although Trumbo was finally welcomed back in 1960 with Exodus and Spartacus, his name wasn't put on the Roman Holiday Oscar until 1993, after he died. (Please watch Martin Ritt's wonderful 1976 film The Front for a good overview of the blacklist.)