1963-1967: Social issues, musicals, earthy comedy films win top honors

(Editor’s note: This is the eighth part in a multi-part series on the winners of the Academy Award for Best Picture. They are being presented in chronological order with “Wings,” the first winner, included among the movies reviewed and/or described in the first part.)

The five years from 1963-1967 were years of great diversity and competition for the Academy Award for Best Picture. They were in a variety of genres. The stories happened in the United States Deep South, England, and Austria.



“Tom Jones,” 1963, directed by Tony Richardson.

The young, hilarious and clever Albert Finney as Tom Jones helps make the somewhat bawdy “Tom Jones” comedy a delight to watch. It’s based on the novel by Henry Fielding about the wild life of a playboy in 18th century rural England.

When the film premiered in October 1963, The New York Times critic wrote, “Prepare yourself for what is surely one of the wildest, bawdiest and funniest comedies that a refreshingly agile filmmaker has ever brought to the screen. …They have whipped up a roaring entertainment that develops its own energy (not just from the massive book) as much as from its cinematic gusto as from the racy material it presents.”

In addition to Finney, the cast includes Susannah York, Hugh Griffith,and Dame Edith Evans.

The others seeking the 1963 Best Picture award included “Cleopatra,” “How the West Was Won,” and “Lilies of the Field.”

“My Fair Lady,” 1964, directed by George Cukor

“My Fair Lady,” which won the 1964 Best Picture Award is one of this writer’s favorite musicals, but there may have been better films that were nominated for the 1964 honor.

In my childhood home, I grew up hearing my father play over and over the Original Broadway Cast soundtrack of “My Fair Lady,” which featured Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle. Andrews was replaced in the movie by Audrey Hepburn. The songs are permanently ingrained in my head.

“My Fair Lady” is based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” The tale is about pompous phonetics professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) who is so sure of his abilities that he takes it upon himself to transform a Cockney working-class girl into someone who can pass for a cultured member of “high society.” His subject turns out to be the lovely Eliza Doolittle, who agrees to speech lessons to improve her job prospects. Higgins and Eliza clash, then form an unlikely bond — one that is threatened by an aristocratic suitor.

Even though this is a great musical that I love, my preference for the 1964 best picture might have been (if I wasn’t in my early teen years at the time) “Dr. Strangelove or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Peter Sellers is magnificent playing three characters in this Stanley Kubrick classic satire.

Other contenders for best picture included “Becket,” “Mary Poppins.” and “Zorba the Greek.” By the way, Julie Andrews, although not cast in the Best Picture-winning “My Fair Lady,” was compensated with a Best Actress award for her dazzling performance in the title role of “Mary Poppins.”

“The Sound of Music,” 1965, directed by Robert Wise

The Academy Award Best Picture winning “The Sound of Music”was based on the true story of the von Trapp family. It was loved by many, but not all.

Star Christopher Plummer wasn’t a fan of the movie. He said in a recent Hollywood Reporter interview, “Because it was so awful and sentimental and gooey. You had to work terribly hard to try to infuse some miniscule bit of humor into it.”

Julie Andrews in “My Fair Lady.”

in the Hawkins family, my mother and sister went to see the movie in a downtown Louisville movie theater while my father and I headed to Crosley Field in Cincinnati to see the Reds play (it was a much better team then) that same day

It took me decades to get past this masculine bias against the movie, but when I finally viewed it I enjoyed it and realized that it wasn’t a threat to my masculinity.

The songs such as “Maria,” “My Favorite Things,””Climb Every Mountain” and “Do Re Mi” are memorable, if a bit saccharine for some tastes. The story of the family’s music and its escape from the threat of the Nazis is a worthy story for the Best Picture Oscar.

Other contenders for the 1965 Best Picture honor included “Doctor Zhivago.” Ship of Fools,” and “A Thousand Clowns.”


A Man for All Seasons, 1966, directed by Fred Zinnemann

“A Man for All Seasons, the 1966 Best Picture winner, was another winner based on a great Broadway play.

This winner is about ethics in addition to being an excellent historic drama. It is the story of the heroic Sir Thomas More resisting King Henry VIII’s demands that More give in and sanction his marriage to Anne Boleyn.

The New York Times reviewer stated, “‘A Man for All Seasons’ is a picture that inspires admiration, courage, and thought.”

The great cast includes Paul Scofield as More, Robert Shaw as the king, Wendy Hiller, Leo McKern, Orson Welles, Susannah York, John Hurt, and Vanessa Redgrave.

Other nominees for the 1966 Best Picture honor included “Alfie,” “The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming,” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

In the Heat of the Night, 1967, directed by Norman Jewison

“In the Heat of the Night,” the 1967 Best Picture winner, was true to the dangerous times of the 1960s. It’s about a black detective from Philadelphia who is in the Deep South when a murder takes place and he is picked up as a suspect.

Sidney Poitier delivers a spot-on performance as Detective Virgil Tibbs and Rod Steiger delivers a stinging performance as Police Chief Bill Gillespie. Tibbs ultimately helps solve the murder. The confrontations between Tibbs and Gillespie during the course of events is fascinating.

When Tibbs is asked by the racist southerners what people call him back home, Poitier delivers masterfully the “They call me Mr. Tibbs” line, one of the great lines in movie history.

Others in the cast include Warren Oates and Lee Grant.

Other nominees for the 1967 honor included “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate,” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”


From  left, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) and Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) argue about a murder case in “In the Heat of the Night.”




And in the beginning: First Academy Award best picture winners

This is the first part of a multi-part series on the Academy Award best picture winners, reviewed chronologically beginning with “Wings,” the first winner.

“Wings,” 1927, directed by  William Wellman

Unlike some later best picture winners, “Wings” was truly deserving. It was the only silent picture to win the honor until 2011 when “The Artist” (except for a single scene of dialog and a dream sequence with sound effects in the  2011 film) won the Oscar. “Wings” aerial scenes are still impressive 90 years later. Stars Charles “Buddy” Rogers, who would marry Mary Pickford a decade later, and Clara Bow, the “it” girl, were part of cast. In a brief appearance as a doomed pilot,  future star Gary Cooper had one of his first significant roles. What helped make all of this work was a  director who had been a pilot and was a wing-walking stunt pilot before his movie career took off.


The Broadway Melody,” 1929, directed by Harry Beaumont

It was a surprise to at least some later day critics that this film won the best picture trophy. Referred to as the prototype of backstage musicals, “Broadway Melody” was described by one critic as suffering from “stolid acting and awkward sound techniques.” Film aficionados will note, however, that this was the first MGM movie featuring a “Singin’ in the Rain” number.

“All Quiet on the Western Front,” 1930, directed by Lewis Milestone

This drama is listed in the “New York Times Guide to the Best Movies Ever Made.” Based on a book by Erich Maria Remarque, “All Quiet on the Western Front” drew praise from the opening night reviewer for The Times who wrote, “Truth comes to the fore when the young soldiers are elated at the idea of joining up, when they are disillusioned, when they are hungry, when they are killing rats in a dugout, when they are shaken by fear, and when they, or one of them, becomes fed up with the conception of war held by the elderly man back home. …Often the scenes are of such excellence that if they were not audible one might believe that they were actual motion pictures of activities behind the lines, in the trenches and in No Man’s Land.”

Cimarron,” 1931, directed by Wesley Ruggles


This is the worst movie to win the best picture honor, in this writer’s opinion. It’s a well intentioned movie with an interesting story based on the novel by Edna Farber. The story is about a newspaper editor who moves to a booming town in 1889 with his wife and what happens over the next 40 years. It is a western/soap opera that suffers from awful acting, huge plot holes and racist overtones. It also tells us how much our tastes have changed over the years.  The movie does star popular actors Richard Dix and Irene Dunne.

“Grand Hotel.” 1932, directed by Edmund Goulding

Originally a stage play, this is a truly great movie featuring such stars as Greta Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford and Wallace Berry. This is a tale regarding strangers whose lives cross during their stay at the Grand Hotel in Berlin.

The Grand Hotel is supposedly a place where nothing ever happens but by the time the guests have checked out, the audience will see manslaughter, gambling, a baron seeking to steal pearls, love affairs, business dealings and more.

Garbo Grand Hotel
Greta Garbo and John Barrymore