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Ben-Hur (1959)
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Ben-Hur (1959)

According to official Oscar® historian Robert Osborne, the April 4, 1960 telecast of the Academy Award ceremony was the last time during the first 60 years that the motion picture industry sponsored the annual proceedings. It is not difficult to see why. The financial burden of putting on the show had become too heavy, and due to MGM's dual big wins with Gigi (1958) and Ben-Hur (1959), it had become increasingly difficult to convince studios to pay for an expensive telecast that largely showcased a rival studio's pictures.

But despite MGM's exalted position in Hollywood, the studio's decision to bring Lew Wallace's sprawling epic novel Ben-Hur to the screen was risky. The inspiration to make a new version of Ben-Hur was influenced by Cecil B. DeMille's remake of his own The Ten Commandments, a huge box office bonanza for Paramount in 1956. The MGM brass figured a remake of their 1925 sword and sandal epic (Ramon Novarro played the title role) would most likely reap similar profits. But at the time, the once-mighty studio was teetering on financial ruin. The competition with television and the effects of the 1948 consent decrees, those that divested the studios of their theater chains, had its greatest impact on mega-studios like MGM. So the decision to pour $15 million into a project that had been filmed once already in 1925 had a few Hollywood insiders smelling blood-red ink. Still, Ben-Hur, what director William Wyler termed "Hollywood's first intimate spectacle," turned out to be an enormous financial and critical success, grossing $37 million domestically and $80 million worldwide in its initial run. It broke box office records everywhere, sustaining Leo the Lion's famous roar above the bankruptcy wolves for another decade or so.

Once it came time for the Academy Awards, Ben-Hur led the pack with twelve nominations. It eventually won eleven Oscars from its twelve nominations, losing the screenplay category only because of a credit dispute among its authors, Karl Tunberg and Christopher Fry. Tunberg got sole screenwriting credit, even though Fry, who was on the set with director William Wyler throughout the production, worked extensively on the script as well. Gore Vidal also contributed to the screenplay but was also denied credit by the Writers Guild. Ben-Hur still holds the title of a single movie with the most Oscars, although another epic, Titanic (1997), tied the record nearly 40 years later.

When Charlton Heston appeared on the list of nominees for Best Actor, many in Hollywood were surprised because they didn't think his performance matched the caliber of Jack Lemmon's in Some Like It Hot or Laurence Harvey's in Room at the Top or even James Stewart's in Anatomy of a Murder. Lemmon's chances, in particular, were probably hampered by the fact that Some Like It Hot failed to score a Best Picture nomination and comedies are usually overlooked as serious contenders. Despite that minor controversy, columnists predicted that Heston would enjoy an easy chariot ride to the winner's podium on Oscar night, since everyone expected a landslide victory for Ben-Hur.

Indeed, Heston did win for the night, and he even managed to surprise some head honchos when he included in his acceptance speech gratitude towards the film's uncredited writer, Christopher Fry. It was the Writers Guild, specifically, that was angry with Heston for mentioning Fry, after all the trouble that the Guild went through over determining screenplay credit. But Heston insisted that Fry had been on the set regularly, helping him with his characterization. Upon meeting with the press after his acceptance speech, a reporter asked Heston backstage which scene in Ben-Hur he enjoyed filming the most, apparently alluding to the chariot race that had everyone in Hollywood talking for months. The winner quickly responded, "I didn't enjoy any of it. It was hard work." Heston did like winning though and commented to his fellow winner and director, William Wyler, "I guess this is old hat to you." Wyler, a three-time winner, retorted, "Chuck, it never gets old hat."

Producer: Sam Zimbalist
Director: William Wyler
Screenplay: Karl Tunberg
Production Design: Edward C. Carfagno
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Costume Design: Elizabeth Haffenden
Film Editing: Ralph Winters
Original Music: Miklos Rozsa
Principal Cast: Charlton Heston (Judah Ben Hur), Stephen Boyd (Mesala), Jack Hawkins (Quintus Arrius), Haya Harareet (Esther), Hugh Griffith (Sheik Ilderim)
C-223m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.

by Scott McGee