It came as little surprise to moviegoers when it was announced on January 24th, 2017, that La La Land had been nominated for 14 Academy Awards, tying the record for most nominations received by a single film (with Titanic and All About Eve). A critical and commercial success, La La Land is both a film made for modern audiences and a loving throwback to the Golden Age of the Hollywood musical. Time will tell whether La La Land will sweep the Oscars (although predictions skew in that direction), but its role is not without historical precedent.
To date, only ten musicals have won the coveted Academy Award for Best Picture. An American in Paris (1951) was the fourth to achieve this honor. In the following excerpt from He’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kelly, authors Cynthia and Sara Brideson discuss the 24th Academy Awards, at which American and Kelly were to achieve special recognition:
If Gene believed that Hollywood and America as a whole did not grant him the recognition he deserved, he was soon to be proven wrong. The honor Hollywood lavished upon Gene after he left for Europe confirmed that his artistry was far from overlooked in his native country. Never in the history of film had a musical ever received as many Oscar nominations as Gene’s An American in Paris. The picture received nods in eight categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Musical Score, Best Art Direction and Set Decoration, Best Color Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Film Editing.
Most significant, Gene was announced as the recipient of the annual Honorary Oscar. The category, created in 1948, acknowledged cinematic achievements not covered by existing Academy Awards. Gene was only the second dancer to receive such recognition (Fred Astaire received one at the 1950 awards ceremony). Though pleased with the award, Gene still voiced regret that he had not been nominated as Best Actor. “The idea that musical [actors] are less worthy of Academy consideration than drama[tic ones] is a form of snobbishness.”
In truth, the honorary Oscar did pay tribute to Gene’s acting ability as well as his dancing talent. On March 20, 1952, the night of the awards ceremony, the president of the Academy, Charles Brackett, stated that Gene had earned his statuette through his “extreme versatility as an actor-singer, director, and dancer . . . and because of his specific and brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.” From Europe, Gene requested that Stanley Donen accept the Oscar for him. Vincente Minnelli admitted that Gene’s decision hurt his feelings, particularly because Donen had had no part in the production of An American in Paris.
Gene was not the only one to receive an honorary Oscar that night. Arthur Freed took home the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award, given to a different producer each year. The Freed Unit was sweeping the Oscars; before Best Picture was announced, An American in Paris had already won two honorary awards plus Best Costume Design, Best Color Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Set Decoration, and Best Screenplay (not to be confused with Best Adapted Screenplay, which went to A Place in the Sun). However, in the Best Picture category, An American in Paris faced heady competition. In a year that sported such prestigious titles as A Streetcar Named Desire, The African Queen, and A Place in the Sun, a musical picture with a thin story line seemed the least likely to win the award. Presenter Jesse Lasky could not conceal his surprise when he opened the envelope. “Oh my!” he exclaimed. “The winner for Best Picture is An American in Paris.” The audience was silent except for a few gasps of shock. But slowly, hearty applause erupted, which only became more vigorous when Freed trotted up to the stage, clearly moved. As he cradled the statuette with the honorary one he had already received, he quipped, “It’s a double header!” He continued on a more serious note: “Thank you. And thank you from my brilliant associates who made this possible: Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly, and a great studio with real courage and leadership who supported me. Thank you.”
For those interested in learning more about the life of Gene Kelly, the Brideson’s new and comprehensive biography is available for pre-order here. Or visit our Twitter for details on how to win an advance copy of the book.