THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ (1946)

In 1947, the 19th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1946 and December 31, 1946 the awards were held on March 13. The Shrine Auditorium was the biggest location yet for the Academy Awards, with 6,700 seats. As such, the Academy allowed the general public to purchase tickets to attend the ceremony for the very first time.

The Academy made a major change to their voting rules for the 1947 ceremony, with only actual Academy members invited to participate in the voting for nominees and winners. This caused the official member pool to swell from 700 to 1,675. It also led to the further rise of Oscar campaigning, as studios could now target a much smaller group of voters than in previous years.

History was made when Harold Russell became the first and only person to receive two Academy Awards for the same performance. Russell, a World War II veteran who had lost both hands in the war and replaced with hooks, had never acted before his performance in The Best Years of Our Lives. As such, the Academy assumed he would never win a competitive Oscar, despite his nomination for Best Supporting Actor. They decided to instead award him with an Honorary Academy Award for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.” As it turns out, he did indeed win the competitive category, and walked away with two Oscars.

The nominees:
The Best Years of Our Lives
Henry V
It’s a Wonderful Life
The Razor’s Edge
The Yearling

The winner:
The Best Years of our Lives

Based on MacKinlay Kantor’s 1945 novella Glory for Me, The Best Years of Our Lives is the story of three United States servicemen and their attempts to adjust back into civilian life after World War II. Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), Petty Officer Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), and Platoon Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March) all meet while flying home to Boone City. Upon returning home, the three men each struggle to return to a place of normalcy. Fred was a decorated Army Air Forces bombardier, and suffers terrible PTSD, causing him severe night terrors. He struggles to find a job, and soon realises his rushed marriage to Marie (Virginia Mayo) before shipping out was perhaps a huge mistake. Homer tragically lost both his hands due to severe burns after his aircraft carrier was sunk, and now uses mechanical hooks. Upon returning home, he detests the pity and sympathy he detects from others, including his own family and fiancée, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell). Al returns to his life as a banker, but clashes with the bank’s president over the treatment of veterans requesting loans with no collateral. At home, he struggles to reconnect with his wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), and two children, Peggy (Teresa Wright) and Rob (Michael Hall). Desperate for escapism, Al turns to alcohol to numb his pain.

Why did it win?
Groundbreaking in its portrayal of life after the war, The Best Years of Our Lives expertly captured the pain and torment returning veterans faced when tasked with putting the war behind them and getting back to civilian life. But, for many, the battles they faced on the front lines were just as difficult as the battles they faced when it was all over. Some, like Homer, returned with physical scars and disabilities. But, for the majority, the emotional scars ran far deeper. The homecoming of servicemen is often celebrated in film as a joyous and jubilant event, but this film dared to show the reality behind the smiles, and it was met with an overwhelmingly positive response from audiences and critics.

The film was huge commercial success, taking in $11.5 million at the US box-office. It became the highest-grossing and most-attended film in the US and the UK since Gone With the Wind, selling 55 million tickets in the US and 20 million tickets in the UK. When adjusted for inflation, it remains one the top 100 grossing films in US history, and is the sixth most-attended film of all time in the UK. You’d likely be hard-pressed to find many who are aware of this film today, but it genuinely stands as one of the most successful films of all time.

Adding to its box-office success, the film won rave reviews from critics, with many calling it the greatest film of the year. The New York Times hailed it as one of “the most beautiful and inspiring demonstrations of human fortitude that we have had in films” and that it was the “best film this year from Hollywood.” Variety called it “one of the best pictures of our lives,” while The New Yorker stated it “profoundly and sensitively balances the private demons of scarred veterans and the press of public policies that leave their mark on daily life.”

When it came time for the Academy Awards, there was simply no other choice for Best Picture. The film crafted something entirely unique and new, and highlighted serious social issues facing millions of Americans. As we saw the previous year, the Academy were now enamoured with films dealing with important adult themes and messages, and that continued with awarding The Best Years of Our Lives with eight nominations and seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Did it deserve to win?
In the 1940s, scores of films dealt with World War II, but none quite like The Best Years of Our Lives. It was one of the first films to portray war for was it really was, and avoid the glossy romanticism the genre had become. This is not a “chin up and carry on” picture. This is not propaganda to hide the damaging consequences of war. After years of films with decidedly patriotic and heroic narratives, this was a deeply sobering portrait of life after battle.

In decades to come, we’d see this kind of response from filmmakers after all major conflicts, such as the Vietnam War (Born on the Fourth of July, Coming Home) and Iraq/Afghanistan (The Hurt Locker, American Sniper). However, The Best Years of Our Lives truly set the standard for films concerned with the aftermath of wars and the effects war has on returning veterans, and still stands as a remarkable achievement in cinema.

The film is cemented by its stellar ensemble cast, with particularly strong performances from its three leading men. March gives a solid and commanding performance as Al, a man struggling to reconnect with the life he once knew and treasured. He has the most to come home to (a good job, a nice home, and a wife and two children), but it’s still not enough to shake the pain of his wartime experiences, and March captures his anguish with impeccable skill. As Fred, Andrews is more the common-man character, crippled by his PTSD, which was a condition still widely misunderstood. His affliction is portrayed with such delicate care by Andrews, and it’s a travesty he missed an Oscar nomination.

But the film’s true star is Russell, who, as an amateur actor, gives the performance of the film as Homer, a man coming to terms with his disability and how it’s received by those around him. His performance is genuinely heartbreaking, particularly given the real-life nature of his prostheses, and the stuff of true cinema legend. The three characters find solace in each other, and their chemistry and connection is truly terrific.

With superb direction yet again from William Wyler, the director responsible for 1942’s Best Picture victor Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives is a poignant and compelling reminder of the tragedy of war. While honouring those that sacrificed so much and paid such a heavy price, we are shown the aftermath for those that survived World War II like never before. It’s a landmark piece of cinema that bravely shined a light on an issue many refused to acknowledge. And, yes, it is indeed a very deserving winner of Best Picture.