Best Picture #20: Gentleman’s Agreement

Each week this column will highlight one winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, progressing chronologically until all winners have been discussed. There will be a brief discussion of the film itself followed by a mention of what we wish won from the nominees in the given year (though in many cases there were films that were superior in terms of quality and/or impact that were not nominated). This week’s entry is Gentleman’s Agreement (1947).

Elia Kazan’s first Best Picture winner, based on the novel of the same name, explores the anti-Semitism present in New York City and affluent communities in the American northeast as Gregory Peck plays as Christian journalist who pretends to be Jewish to gain new insights. As Peck’s Philip Green comes face to face with widespread effects of anti-Semitism such as discriminatory hiring practices, being barred from staying at certain establishments, being subject to derision and constant backhanded comments, and his son falling victim to bullying, Green’s worldview changes and he resolves to fight for what is right even as his personal life begins to collapse. Much of what the film has to say remains true today with assertions that ostensibly good people who sit back and watch these sorts of things unfold are complicit in their propagation, and the concept of the ideal American being a white protestant having the potential to lead anyone who doesn’t fit that definition to self-loathing and resignation. Unfortunately, this exploration doesn’t extend beyond the social elite, something that makes a certain amount of sense given that they would form the primary audience for the article Green writes and the intended audience for the film, but its limited scope makes the impact today feel a bit blunted as there are issues that existed then and persist today that extend far beyond what was shown.

The Real Best Picture:

1947 was one of those years where essentially the same film was released twice, and Crossfire is the one of the two films about anti-Semitism nominated for Best Picture that I prefer, perhaps because it was initially intended to be about homophobia rather than anti-Semitism and that knowledge gives an interesting perspective on intersectionalism. However, it would be a lie to say Miracle on 34th Street isn’t my favorite of the nominees. The Academy had a good run of nominating Christmas movies with It’s a Wonderful Life being up for the prize the year before, and Miracle on 34th Street was the greatest Christmas film until Elf came along, so as much as it pains me, as someone with Jewish heritage, to say the Christmas film should’ve beat both of the films about anti-Semitism, I’m going with Miracle on 34th Street as the rightful winner.

Best Picture Winners

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