He’s still the all-time champ of Academy Award Best Director races, having racked up four statuettes in competition. (That puts him ahead of Frank Capra and William Wyler, with three each.) But John Ford, the restless, dark-spectacled, hard-drinking, handkerchief-chomping, legendarily gruff movie-set martinet, best known for turning Utah’s Monument Valley into Hollywood’s most resplendent vision of the Western frontier, never once came to the podium to give an acceptance speech.
He certainly seemed to have some good excuses. His first win, for the 1935 Irish-revolution tragedy The Informer, came in a bad year for the Academy, as industry guilds called for a boycott of the ceremonies over ongoing labor issues. Accounts are a bit fuzzier on Ford’s exact whereabouts on Feb. 27, 1941, when he was again named Best Director for his towering adaptation of John Steinbeck’s dust-bowl Okie elegy, The Grapes of Wrath. Ford was apparently off on a yachting trip, ostensibly a vacation, which involved reporting on suspected Japanese naval activity off the coast of Mexico. In any case, when Informer screenwriter Dudley Nichols wired congratulations, Ford wrote back, ”Awards for pictures are a trivial thing to be concerned with at times like these.”
By March of 1942, when the coal-miner-family saga How Green Was My Valley copped Oscars not only for Ford’s direction but also for Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Donald Crisp as a put-upon patriarch), Cinematography, and Art Direction – making it Ford’s most Oscar-decorated movie – the filmmaker had already gone to war, overseeing documentaries as a lieutenant commander in the Navy. (While away, he received two more Oscars in the documentary categories, for 1942’s The Battle of Midway and 1943’s December 7th.)
Then Ford’s Oscar-bait streak evaporated as he turned his postwar attentions primarily to Westerns, never a favorite genre for the Academy. (Indeed, his first and last horse-epic nomination as director was for 1939’s Stagecoach, the picture that also marked John Wayne’s breakout role. Ford lost to Victor Fleming, who won for Gone With the Wind.) Two of Ford’s greatest postwar frontier tales, My Darling Clementine (1946) and The Searchers (1956), garnered not a single Academy Award nomination. A third, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), got just one for costume design.
Instead, Ford’s last big Oscar hurrah came with the marital comedy-drama The Quiet Man, his 1952 valentine to the Irish culture and countryside from which his forebears hailed. The picture earned seven nominations, including picture and color cinematography. And where was Ford on the historic night a half century ago when he racked up a record-setting fourth Best Director prize? Busy abroad after the African shoot of Mogambo. Crony and Quiet Man star John Wayne picked up the award for him, saying the director would ”place this…on his mantel with his five [others].” (Wayne, of course, was counting Ford’s documentary wins. And that mantel, by the way, was not in Ford’s home but in the farm compound-cum-clubhouse he maintained for his war buddies and movie friends. Right above the fireplace, the mantel, and the golden figures, Ford kept a large painted portrait of himself, hands imperiously on hips, in a yachting cap and smoking a pipe.)