THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘Hamlet’ (1948)

In 1949, the 21st Academy Awards ceremony was held at The Academy Theater in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1948 and December 31, 1948 the awards were held on March 24. As you can see, the Academy once again changed the location of the event. They were forced to use their much smaller private theatre, which only held 985 seats. This was in the response to the major studios withdrawing financial support for the awards, in order to quell rumours they had been using that support to influence voters. The funds to rent a major theatre simply weren’t available in time, and as such, this was one of the lowest-attended ceremonies in years, due to the seating restrictions.

After years of overlooking the efforts of costume designers, the Academy finally added the category of Best Costume Design, awarding two prizes – one for a black-and-white film (Hamlet), and another for colour (Joan of Arc). Joan of Arc became the first film to receive seven nominations but fail to receive a Best Picture nomination. Johnny Belinda became the fourth film to receive nominations in all four acting categories. John and Walter Huston became the first father and son to win Oscars in the same evening, with John taking home Best Director and Screenplay and Walter winning Best Supporting Actor for The Treasure of Sierra Madre.

Hamlet became the fifth film to win Best Picture without a nomination for Best Screenplay. It also became the first non-Hollywood production to take the top prize, and marked the first time an individual, Laurence Olivier, directed himself in an Oscar-winning performance. This achievement would not be matched until 1998 when Roberto Benigni won Best Actor for Life is Beautiful. With his win for Best Actor, Olivier and then-wife Vivien Leigh became the first husband and wife team to both receive Academy Awards. Hamlet was also the first and only Best Picture winner to also win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

The nominees:
Hamlet
Johnny Belinda
The Red Shoes
The Snake Pit
The Treasure of Sierra Madre

The winner:
Hamlet

Based on William Shakespeare’s classic play, Hamlet tells the story of the titular Danish prince (Laurence Olivier) who is still distraught over the sudden and unexpected death of his father, King Hamlet (appearing as a ghost, voiced by Olivier). Hamlet is also confounded by the quick remarriage of his mother, Queen Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) to his uncle, Claudius (Basil Sydney), who moved quickly to take the throne. After being informed by the ghost of his late father that Claudius was responsible for his death, after pouring poison into his ear while he slept, Hamlet plots a scheme to avenge his father. But he remains unsure of the best method of revenge, and struggles with the burden of his secret, which will ultimately have dire consequences for those around him.

Why did it win?
After rave response to his directorial debut with Henry V, Hollywood was quite taken by Laurence Olivier, and he determination to bring Shakespeare to the big screen. The previous year, the Academy actually awarded him an honorary Oscar for “his Outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director in bringing Henry V to the screen.” It’s hardly a surprise his follow-up, Hamlet, was so well-received by the Academy.

The film would mark a turning point for the Academy, being the first time a film produced outside of Hollywood would win Best Picture. This is something quite typical of the Oscars of today, but in 1948, it was unheard of to honour anything outside the studio system. After two decades of only awarding their own, the Academy were clearly finally ready to accept there was a burgeoning film industry outside of Hollywood, and it was time to acknowledge that. Hamlet seems to have come along at just the right time.

But timing wasn’t the only factor. The film was wildly successful with the public, taking an impressive $3.25 million at the US box-office. Many believed a film based on one of Shakespeare’s plays simply wouldn’t lead to box-office success, but Hamlet proved them wrong, and it sparked a wave of Shakespearean adaptations that we still see to this day. The film was also well-received by critics, with many praising the film’s bold style and Olivier’s impeccable acting.

Variety called it “picture-making at its best, and its showing must be done with the dignity it deserves,” and The New York Times hailed “the filmed Hamlet of Laurence Olivier gives absolute proof that these classics are magnificently suited to the screen.” With both commercial and critical success, Hamlet sailed into the Academy Awards with seven nominations, ultimately taking home four awards. The Brits had officially arrived at the Academy Awards.

Did it deserve to win?
I have to be honest and say it was rather difficult to sit down and enjoy a piece of cinema based on a play you were forced to relentlessly study in high school, and again at university. All those memories of assignments and exams come flooding back. All the pain of attempting to interpret Shakespeare’s words into a critical essay. Just the word Hamlet makes me shiver with dread. But we’re not here to re-live school days, and so one must assess this as simply another Best Picture winner.

If you love Shakespeare, and you love films adapted from his work, of course you’re going to say this film deserved to win Best Picture. And it is indeed one of the gold-standard adaptations of his work. Olivier’s performance as Hamlet is glorious, and he deservedly took home Best Actor. There has simply never been a better Shakespearean film actor, or at least until Kenneth Branaugh came along. He has a way of delivering his lines with such precision and perfect cadence that is such a joy to listen to. He has a number of knock-out scenes, particularly the infamous “to be or not to be” monologue and his biting “get thee to a nunnery” scene with Ophelia, and it really is one of the greatest performances of this era.

As director, he crafts his film with such an ominous and gothic feel, and it’s a surprisingly dazzling piece of visual cinema. The early scenes with the ghost of Hamlet’s father are downright unsettling, and the way Olivier uses fog and shadow is genuinely masterful. His use of black-and-white photography creates such strikingly beautiful imagery, and it’s actually rather surprising the film wasn’t lauded for its cinematography. Despite his cinematic setting, Olivier retains a strong sense of the stage, with intimate sets and tight angles. Yes, some have criticised this as giving the film a sense of merely being a filmed version of a play, but therein lies its magic.

The film marked the dawn of a new era of Shakespearean films, and the arrival of non-Hollywood films at the Academy Awards. It’s another turning point in Academy history, and established a new wave of foreign films to achieve success at the Oscars. Hamlet remains one of the most impressive Shakespeare adaptations, and it’s still remarkable to view today. While it doesn’t have the pure entertainment factor of some of the films it defeated, particularly The Treasure of Sierra Madre, it’s hard to fault it and it’s even harder to say it wasn’t a deserving winner of Best Picture.