A lot can happen over the course of a decade, but it is quite remarkable to watch the shift in society and especially the entertainment world during the 1960s. Beginning with many ideals and touches that still screamed of the 1950s, it is hard to believe that by the time the decade is over, the Academy Awards will give its Best Picture prize to MIDNIGHT COWBOY, a then X-Rated film about a young hustler from Texas who comes to New York to start a new life pleasing women (and perhaps men too?) in a glitzy yet grimy environment. And to think, just the year before, they gave the award to the stage-to-screen adaptation of the musical OLIVER!
The early 60s were still a time when Hollywood seemed incredibly restrained by content and censorship, not to mention dealing with racism here and there or the blacklisting of anyone who supported communism or they identified as one. Some really good films came out around this time, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s classic PSYCHO or Billy Wilder’s dark rom-com THE APARTMENT, which managed to win the award for Best Picture of 1960. However, Hollywood cinema was in dire straits and its desire to cling to the past was certainly laughable.
Europe led the way when it came to making films that challenged filmgoers with their style and content. They seemed artsy and intellectual and daring and challenging which are certainly words you would not use to describe film adaptations of THE MUSIC MAN or GYPSY. Hollywood didn’t seem as eager to honor these foreign films that were truly superior to what we were dishing out at the time. Some of the filmmakers may have gotten a Best Director or Screenplay nomination here and there but it was nearly impossible for the Academy to have the gall and the actual perspicacity to actually give these films even just a nomination for Best Picture.
Ingmar Bergman, perhaps the greatest filmmaker to have ever lived in my opinion, was one of the few who managed to slip through and get multiple nominations over the years. However, NONE of his films, such as WILD STRAWBERRIES, PERSONA, SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, FACE TO FACE, AUTUMN SONATA, and FANNY & ALEXANDER ever received a nomination for Best Picture. Foreign Language film? Yes. Easily. But can a foreign language film also be the best film overall? Also, yes. I shouldn’t even have to say that. It does go without saying. To this day, the Academy has yet to award a Foreign Language film Best Picture even though it HAS managed to nominate a few over the years. It can still be an uphill battle though. (*One slight exception was 2011’s THE ARTIST, which technically is film made in France but conveniently was a silent film set in the U.S. and the only dialogue heard at the end is spoken in English…how convenient*)
Along with Bergman, other foreign directors such as Federico Fellini and Francois Truffaut, would get high praise and the occasional nomination but never a win. Some, like Andrei Tarkovsky and Jean-Luc Godard, never received anything at all (although Godard won an honorary award in 2010).
Fellini, in particular, had a major chance to break the trend in 1963 when he made his opus and one of the best films ever made: 8 ½
Despite being one of the weakest years for film in terms of American cinema, the Academy STILL chose to give the award to the British farce TOM JONES and didn’t even nominate Fellini’s masterpiece. Selections like these are how the true flaws of the Academy are shown. Even though, they may redeem themselves from time to time (like going against the grain to give MOONLIGHT the award over LA LA LAND), they also ruin their reputation all over again (like going against the grain and giving Best Picture to CRASH…or SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE…or BRAVEHEART…or GLADIATOR…I better stop before break something).
1963 was also a breaking point year for two other reasons, not really related to Hollywood: our involvement in the War in Vietnam increased as JFK heightened the number of men to be drafted…and also, JFK’s assassination that November. These two events helped start a ball rolling that would end up changing everything. Within a couple of years, it seemed as if people grew up on some level.
By 1965, you already had the British Invasion in the music world led by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones among a few other groups. Color Television was becoming a commonplace as most networks began filming their TV series only in color, which would completely take over by the fall of 1966. The younger generations, whom were dubbed Baby Boomers, mostly protested the War and also joined protests of the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The tide began to feel different and you start to see glimmers of it peeping through in Hollywood cinema.
There was a certain grittiness that started to show in films around this time like the brutal A PATCH OF BLUE, about a young white blind woman who lives with her racist abusive mother but finds solace in a sweet and gentle young man, who happens to be black; or THE PAWNBROKER, a very bleak film that dealt with a Nazi Concentration Camp survivor who now owns a Pawn shop in NYC…it also contained one of the earliest instances of nudity in a film as you see a woman’s breasts.
1966 took it to another level with the film adaptation of Edward Albee’s masterwork WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRIGINIA WOOLF? While this looks relatively tame by today’s standards in terms of language or content, the dialogue filled with such phrases “Goddamn you!” or “Hump the hostess!” were considered too suggestive at the time. Yes, it seems laughable now but you can’t deny the importance of this film making it through the labyrinth of the MPAA. It is with its audacity that we ended up getting the Rating system we have today as opposed to such outdated methods like the Hays Code.
1966 also gave us films such as ALFIE, a movie from the UK that introduced American audiences to Michael Caine. ALFIE was a romantic comedy/drama hybrid that involved around a rather charming cad of a leading man (that being Caine as Alfie, of course) and his escapades. The film had a very distinct feel to the time both visually, musically, and artistically. It also was ahead of its time in some ways in that the character of Alfie opens the film by breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the audience, something that was not common at the time but seems more so today with the likes of House of Cards or movies that involved around similar types of charming con-types like FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF. While my heart belongs to WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, I can’t deny the enormous appeal of ALFIE and how young Michael Caine is unbelievably sly and charming (a Jude Law/Hugh Grant of his time). The Academy still hasn’t fully embraced the cutting edge of Hollywood (or anywhere else for that matter) and the reward another play adaptation, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, which is a good film in its own right and contains some fantastic performances from Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas Moore and Robert Shaw as King Henry VIII…but it is your typical “Academy Awards gives it to another period piece/epic” story.
Then we get to the piece de resistance, 1967. It contained “the Summer of Love”, and in many ways, it was the true official peak of the Hippie generation that would last for another year or two up until Woodstock. Hollywood still has enough of its old guard to basically ruin everything new and exciting so don’t you worry…
These were the five nominees for Best Picture that year:
Bonnie & Clyde
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
In The Heat of the Night
So, each of these five films represents something monumental…and arguably two or three, but especially one in particular, shouldn’t even be on this list. Missing from this list was the dark and gritty adaptation of the Truman Capote non-fiction novel IN COLD BLOOD, a movie that managed a Best Director nomination but not much else. Also missing was one of Ingmar Bergman’s finest efforts PERSONA…but we already know how the Academy responded to foreign films at that time. COOL HAND LUKE was another classic that missed the cut but it managed to get nominations and wins throughout the evening in other categories. Also, it must be mentioned that the Academy’s President at the time, who happened to be actor Gregory Peck, campaigned for the Academy voters to recognize how good animation could be (something that they STILL don’t often do….only BEAUTY AND THE BEAST remains as the only animated film to be nominated for Best Picture when the nomination limit was 5. Toy Story 3 and UP have since been nominated when the number limit increased). His push was for the last film that Walt Disney was relatively involved with before his death, THE JUNGLE BOOK. Despite his efforts, nothing really materialized but people like him welcomed change and he often encouraged more liberal and modern values.
As it stands, those five are what we got…and IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT won in an upset selection, but also in a way that is fascinating to analyze.
BONNIE & CLYDE was New Hollywood. Sure, it may have looked like an old-style film at times but it sizzled with sexual chemistry between Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway and it also contained scenes of great action and brutal violence (at least for its time). You could also say THE GRADUATE was New Hollywood. While it sort of had a slight schmaltzy quality at times, it was also very jarring with director Mike Nichols’ use of the camera angles and the sexual content which included a younger man with an older woman, and brief instances of nudity. It also struck a chord with the younger generation who all felt lost as many were being drafted or others were no sure what to do with their future after college…all of these things faced by Benjamin (well, not really the draft aspect…in fact…come to think of it…I don’t think they ever mention Vietnam…that might be a bit hard to swallow, but oh well). To added affect, Nichols used a selection of songs by then-new popular folk singer/songwriters Simon and Garfunkel. Their work adds an extra dash offreshness and also gives the film a certain edge. It wasn’t overly common even at that time to hear music like this in a film unless you were watching something that was specific to the music, like A HARD DAY’S NIGHT.
Bridging the gap is IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, but I want to come back to it in a moment.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a fascinating film, but not necessarily for the reasons you may think. It is about a white woman who brings home her black boyfriend to her well-off parents to announce they want to be married. Your first thought is probably “Well, I am sure that won’t go over well, especially at the time”. That is true, and it certainly doesn’t sit well with the young woman’s parents. However, 1967 was also the year that the Supreme Court finally set a ruling that interracial couples could be legally allowed to marry in all states…it was originally illegal in close to 20 states at that time… just over 50 years ago. Isn’t that crazy? So, that bit of historical relevance dates the film in some way which is unfair, but that isn’t the major problem. The problem is that despite this very crucial topic, the film almost plays as squeaky as if it were made in 1957 instead of 1967. Other than one scene in which the black maid of the Drayton family corners the black fiancé John, in which the movie gets a little bit of a modern spark (she even uses the infamous n-word), there is a certain sweet touch that makes the film feel much less important than it should have.
Lastly, we have DOCTOR DOOLITTLE, a nomination that is easily in contention of being the worst ever selected in Academy history. It is an example of old Hollywood working its magic and a gullible Academy falling for it hook, line, and sinker.
Despite the massive success of such movie musicals as MARY POPPINS and THE SOUND OF MUSIC, they were on their way out the door by this point and it appeared as though the general public was ready for more adult-oriented fare. 20th Century Fox was petrified as it had DOCTOR DOOLITTLE on its roster and it was in constant disarray during production which caused its budget to balloon. When it was finally released, it bombed at the box office and critics gave it mixed reviews at best…it was deemed out-of-touch and hopelessly hokey and ho-hum.
The Fox studios were in a panic and the heads resorted to the most shameless, political, and depressingly hilarious and still unprecedented nomination campaign in history. They treated the Academy voters to dinner with a free open bar and screened the movie for them. Voila! Nomination secured…and at the expense of PERSONA, IN COLD BLOOD, COOL HAND LUKE, and THE JUNGLE BOOK…..and WAIT UNTIL DARK, THE WHISPERERS, TWO FOR THE ROAD…should I go on? Basically any fucking film that isn’t DOCTOR DOOLITTLE.
One final thing: just prior to the ceremony, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and Gregory Peck chose to postpone the ceremony for several days. Going into the event, there was definitely a sense of support for the Civil Rights Movement….which Hollywood, more or less, DID support…although it is hard to show that when in 40 years or so of the Academy’s existence up to that time that only TWO black performers won an Oscar.
On Oscar night, it was considered a tight race, surprisingly enough, between the two New Hollywood films: Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate, with most thinking The Graduate had the edge. In the Heat of the Night was considered the dark horse.
Bonnie and Clyde barely won anything, just two Oscars, whereas The Graduate managed to only grab Best Director. IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT had a very hot night (pun intended…thank you, I am here for a few more paragraphs).
Why did this occur? Is IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT a good film? Yes, but we also don’t talk about it much nowadays in the same vain we do BONNIE & CLYDE and THE GRADUATE. It dealt with the death of a famous architect when he was visiting Mississippi and the FBI sends an African-American homicide detective to investigate the murder…but as this is Mississippi, racism is rampant and the story revolves around this community not respecting this authority figure strictly because he is black. It follows a lot of the tropes you would expect he story to take. While that does hurt the movie on some level and not to mention the fact that a lot of the southern stereotypes are played to their full unapologetic caricature potential by some, the movie succeeds on a level that GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER didn’t, it feels more modern and of its time.
I personally feel IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT won the award because it was a way for the Academy to honor a good film that didn’t feel too radical but wasn’t stuck in the past. It may not have been the best decision or the worst decision but I suppose that if that truly were the mindset of many of those voters, it can be viewed as admirable.
I also once heard a guy claim that he is convinced that the Academy voters had Price Waterhouse tamper with the votes during the postponement to make In The Heat of the Night win over The Graduate in Picture and Screenplay in order to seem supportive of the Civil Rights plight after the King assassination. It’s actually an interesting theory but one I’ve never heard anyone else theorize but that person.
(SIDE TRACK: With that theory in mind, and even though it has been disproven since and explained,when they announced LA LA LAND was not the proper winner and that MOONLIGHT was instead, I almost wondered if this was the Academy’s twisted game to get more notice to the fact that after many years of being considered racist and all of the #OSCARSSOWHITE memes, they had the perfect opportunity to show the world that their Best Picture selection was actually an indie film about a small African-American boy who lives in the ghetto of Miami with a drug-addicted mother and he is also battling his own sexuality as we watch him grow up. It was the first instance of the Academy not only honoring a film focused around a gay focal character, but also the first film with an all-black ensemble. While it didn’t happen that way, it is almost the perfect it happened the way it did because it certainly got a lot of attention.)
Going into 1968, things get worse as we also have the previously mentioned assassination of MLK Jr.; another assassination involving RFK as he campaigns for President; LBJ refusing to seek another term after realizing he has lost most of America’s approval over Vietnam; Nixon getting elected President; rampant violence, etc…
Hollywood takes a step back, however, with the nominees this year. Despite nominations and wins in other categories for the likes of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Mel Brooks’ THE PRODUCERS, Roman Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY, and John Cassavettes’ FACES, none of them make it into the Best Picture race, which is, instead, filled with:
The Lion in Winter
Romeo and Juliet
We have two musicals among this list, one of them includes a performance that is considered legendary and the other is a rather darkly quirky piece that ended up taking the prize. We also have a very sarcastic and cynical period drama, a smaller drama about a woman’s sexual awakening in her mid-30’s, and an adaptation of perhaps the most famous play ever written.
Funny Girl and Oliver don’t really bring anything new to the table, and I suppose you could say the same about The Lion in Winter as well other than the fact that it contains such a fantastic witty script and stellar performances and was easily the best of the nominated five. Romeo & Juliet along with Rachel, Rachel both contain scenes of nudity and/or sex, which were still brand new to the mainstream film scene.
Looking at this race now, it almost seems laughable that OLIVER pulled it off. I actually liked OLIVER as a movie but it shouldn’t have won Best Picture or even been nominated when not only were THE LION IN WINTER and ROMEO & JULIET better, but the snubbed ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE PRODUCERS and FACES and especially 2001: A Space Odyssey were, too.
Speaking of that latter film, Stanley Kubrick was a very important filmmaker for the 1960s. Starting off the decade with your prototypical Hollywood epic SPARTACUS, he followed it with LOLITA, which was adapted from a rather controversial novel by Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov that involved a middle-aged man’s quest to sleep with a 12-year old girl and in order to get closer to her, marries the girl’s mother. For the movie, in which the screenplay was credited to Nabokov, who disowned it until his death, her age was increased to 14 and a lot of the sexual innuendo was implied and certain plot points (like Humbert Humbert’s past and his life being crushed forever over the death of his young girlfriend Annabel) were erased. Still, it was a very important step for the movie industry, especially considering it was 1962. He followed that with DR. STRANGELOVE: or HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB. With this film, he brought the saltiest and most biting of satires to the screen as he made fun of one of the most potentially frightening things that could’ve very well occurred at that time: a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. That satirical and biting edge was never really felt in a Hollywood movie before.
That brings us to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. This is a movie that is absolutely remarkable in its content and its scope. The fact that this movie was even MADE in 1968 is nothing short of miraculous. With hardly any dialogue and images of futuristic spaceships traveling through space and visual effects that were unprecedented at that time, it is no wonder many people didn’t know what to make of it. It is certainly a prime example of a movie that was mainly misunderstood at the time of its release only to be considered a classic later on…and then times it by a 100.
Entering 1969, the 60s seem radically different. Gregory Peck pushed for more members of younger Hollywood to be allowed to vote for the Oscars as their voice was worth hearing and he felt they would be able to really show what great films were out there. In the end, the Academy’s selections are all a matter of their opinions. No one will ever fully agree with them…but the decade ended with that certain X-Rated film winning Best Picture.
Anne of a Thousand Days
Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid
This list of the nominees for Best Picture of 1969 represents, yet again, a major divide in Hollywood, not to mention another sorry attempt at a studio trying to beg for validation.
HELLO DOLLY was a smash success when it premiered on Broadway in 1964 being led by the quirky character actress Carol Channing. A film adaptation was inevitable but 20TH Century Fox, yes it is them again, was determined to drum up some excitement by casting a lady by the name of Barbra Streisand. Now, at this point, Streisand was just making her film debut in the previous years’ FUNNY GIRL, for which she won an Oscar. She was still very popular for her success as a recording artist and being one of the biggest stars to ever come from a Broadway stage. Having her for the film was considered a significant coup…but the big problem was that she was 26 years old playing a part that was written for a middle aged woman. This also goes back to the fact HELLO DOLLY was based on a play by Thornton Wilder called THE MATCHMAKER and he wrote the play for a very charismatic middle aged woman to play it. Her age and vocal style just didn’t work for the piece and many felt so. Nevertheless, the film went on and was as big and glossy as any movie musical to have come out of Hollywood. It has its fans and it was definitely better received than DOCTOR DOOLITTLE, but its nomination definitely raised many eyebrows even at that time.
ANNE OF A THOUSAND DAYS is one of those movies that practically yells out at the top of its lungs “PLEASE NOMINATE ME FOR AN OSCAR!” and that they did. However, the film is, yet again, one that received mixed reviews at the time and it seemed to slip into award races primarily on the pedigree of the amazing performances given by Richard Burton and Genevieve Bujold.
BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID is probably the most known of the movies in some ways, at least along with aspects of MIDNIGHT COWBOY. It’s definitely a little bit cheesy but the buddy chemistry of Paul Newman and Robert Redford make for an entertaining diversion.
Z is rarely discussed today and that is a shame. Its nomination is one of extreme importance as it was the first foreign language film to actually get a nomination in the Best Picture category (wow, Academy…just over 40 years in existence and this event is only now occurring?). The main premise involves around the assassination of a Democratic Greek politician named Grigoris Lambrakis, and it shined a light on the outrage of the authoritarian regime that was ruling Greece at the time. The film had perhaps a tad more of a commercialized element to it than some of the previous foreign films that had been snubbed, but having said that, it also contained an intense quality, a very darkly subversive and witty script at times, and a downbeat ending when most people still expected a happy one.
Personally, I found Z to be the best movie of that year and I wish it had won; having said that, I do appreciate MIDNIGHT COWBOY for pulling it off the win.
(SIDE NOTE: The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, who oversees the Golden Globe Awards, has a silly rule that still persists to this day thay no foreign language film could be nominated for Best Picture. This, therefore, meant Z was snubbed for the award even though they gave it Best Foreign Film, which the producers of Z promptly refused. It is funny to think an organization that contains press members from several FOREIGN countries would be more understanding about these things, but anyone who knows the Golden Globes should know they’ve never been the best bunch at being wise).
So, we arrive at MIDNIGHT COWBOY: a movie filled with nudity and sex and it also shows New York City, then in all of its sleazy and grimy glory. You also have Jon Voight in what was his breakout role co-starring with Dustin Hoffman, who with this performance coming off his more subtle and restrained turn in THE GRADUATE, showed how truly versatile he was. As Ratso Rizzo, he is absolutely despicable in the best possible ways. He embodies everything that you’d expect a late 60s NY sleazeball to be and it remains one of the best performances he has ever given and he should have won his first Oscar for this. The movie also contains a very implied scene that was a very bold attempt to include homosexuality in a movie as Jon Voight’s character has an encounter with a young man at a Porno theatre (played very bravely by the marvelous character actor Bob Balaban). In the end, I have never been a big fan of MIDNIGHT COWBOY. I admire it for being brash and bold and for containing great performances by Voight and especially Hoffman, not to mention an unhappy ending in which Voight sits hopelessly on a bus heading into Miami with a dead Dustin Hoffman laying on him.
And on the movie side, that is basically it. I would’ve loved to have seen the look on some of these people’s faces if they had a chance to jump from 1960 to 1969 or even 1965 to 1969. The movie industry changed so much and it appeared that Hollywood finally caught up to Europe and the rest of the moviemaking world in many ways. Of course, the Academy wouldn’t always be perfect (not even close), but there did seem to be some improvement over their nomination selections and even some of their winners.
Also, the movie industry entered the 70s in full blown abandon and gave us the last great decade for cinema, and honestly, my personal favorite decade for film.