1968-1972: An edgy era of winning films

(Editor’s note: This is the ninth 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 Oscar winners for Best Picture winners between 1968 and 1972 all had a certain edgy quality to them, even the musical “Oliver,” based on a Charles Dickens book and the stage musical, fits that description.

Those films were certainly reflective of the times with social upheavals, the U.S. presidency of Richard M. Nixon, the ongoing Vietnam War and many other issues shaking the times.

Oliver!, 1968, directed by Carol Reed

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Mark Lester as Oliver seeking more food.

“Oliver!,” the 1968 Academy Award Best Picture winner, not only leaves one humming some of its tunes, but thinking about some of the issues the story raises.

Based on Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” the movie is story is about a young boy swept into a gang of youthful thieves. It’s a story about poverty, too, and what it forces some people to do. That is still a very relevant issue today at it was in 1968 and when Dickens novel was first published as a serial between 1837–39.

At a little more than 2-1/2 hours, Oliver! is plenty of entertainment per entertainment dollar in addition to being thought-provoking. The memorable songs include “Consider Yourself Part of the Family,” “I’ll Do Anything,” “Food Glorious Food,” and “As Long as He Needs Me.”

The cast includes Ron Moody, Shani Walls, Oliver Reed, Mark Lester, Jack Wild and Hugh Griffith.

Other contenders for Best Picture in 1968 included “Funny Girl,” “The Lion in Winter,” and “Romeo and Juliet.”

Midnight Cowboy, 1969, directed by John Schlesinger

Although its original rating has been changed, “Midnight Cowboy” is the only Best Picture winner with the distinction of having a “X” rating when it was first released.

The film had been approved with an “R,” but after United Artist executives consulted a psychologist who said that the “homosexual frame of reference” and its “possible influence upon youngsters,” the studio agreed to accept the X rating. The Motion Picture Association of America ultimately changed its rating system and the movie got its R rating.

This is a gritty film about a naive, young Texas man, played by Jon Voight, who thinks he can make a great living as a gigolo in New York City. Once there, he meets the street-savvy, homeless, dying Ratso, played by Dustin Hoffman.

In “Midnight Cowboy,” Hoffman as Ratso yells one of the all-time classic movie lines as he walks across NYC street traffic: ” “I’m walkin’ here!” That line reached No. 27 on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movie Quotes.” Additionally, the song “Everybody’s Talkin’,'” which is featured throughout the movie, won Harry Nilsson a Grammy Award for Best Male Vocal Performance

In many ways, this is a very down movie, but sadly the story of beautiful dreams destroyed by harsh realities is still a true story for many people today.

The other contenders for the 1969 Best Picture Award included “Anne of the Thousand Days,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Hello Dolly,” and “Z.”

Patton, 1970, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner

The Academy Award Best Picture winning “Patton” is described as a milestone in screen bio-pics by many critics.

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George C.. Scott as Gen. Patton in “Patton”

George C. Scott extensively studied the brilliant, eccentric Gen. George S. Patton in preparing for the role. Scott displays the brilliance and the temper of the general, who was a major figure in World War II.

Scott, who won the Best Actor Award, had refused the Oscar nomination but won the award anyway. In a letter to the Academy, he stated that he did not feel himself to be in competition with other actors.

In addition to Scott, actors in the film included Karl Malden, Stephen Young and, if you dig further down in the credits, Tim Considine.

Other contenders for the 1970 Best Picture award included “Airport,” “Five Easy Pieces,” and “M*A*S*H.”

The French Connection, 1971, directed by William Friedkin

“The French Connection,” the 1971 Best Picture winner, is a high-energy, landmark film about international smuggling of heroin into New York City and a maverick detective’s efforts to try to stop it.

The great chase scenes through NYC streets are among the greatest in film history, which earned the film editors a well-deserved Oscar.. You will catch yourself moving back and forth in your seat (if you can manage to stay in it) trying to dodge the cars.

Gene Hackman is the star of this film, but the great cast also includes Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider, and Tony LoBianco.

Other nominees for the 1971 Best Picture honor included “Clockwork Orange,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “The Last Picture Show,” and “Nicholas and Alexandra.”

The Godfather, 1974, Francis Ford Coppola

Hollywood has given us many notable gangster or mob films, but the two Oscar Best Picture winning “Godfather” movies gave us a greater sense of that world than ever before.

“The Godfather,” 1972, and “The Godfather Part 2, 1974, hold the distinction of being the only films that both the original and the sequel won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

In the first movie, we see Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone, the “godfather,” in a role that some critics view as his greatest film performance. The other members of this great cast include Al Pacino, James Caan, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, Abe Vigoda, singer Al Martino, and Alex Rocco.

This is a story about gangsters, but also one about families, not just crime families but in this case about Italian families seeking their version of the American dream and power.

It’s hard to imagine any other movie winning the 1972 Oscar for Best Picture than this Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece, but the other contenders included “Cabaret,””Deliverance,” “Sounder.”

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Marlon Brando As Vito Corleone in “The Godfather.”

 

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1953-1957: Big stories on bigger screens

By the early 1950s, movie studio executives realized that television was a real competitor and they needed to take action to bring audiences back into the movie theaters.

The Turner Classic Movies documentary series “Moguls and Movie Stars” includes an episode on the period from 1950 to 1960 titled, “The Attack of the Small Screens.” Cinerama, Cinemascope and 3D were among the innovations the studios tried, but the solution was big stories told on the big screen in powerful ways.

Several of those big stories hit the big screen between 1953 and 1957.

Best Picture winners

 

“From Here to Eternity,” 1953, directed by Fred Zinnemann.

“From Here to Eternity” is a prime example of powerful film-making in the mid-1950s.

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The Burt Lancaster-Deborah Kerr kissing on the beach is one of the most famous kissing scenes in motion picture history and has been imitated and lampooned many times.

This Oscar Best Picture winner draws from the deep well of memories and emotions tied to the days before and day of the bombing of Pearl Harbor as well as its immediate impact. It’s a story of romance, ill-fated affairs, ladies of the evening’s hopes for the future, the military life, the masculine lifestyle and occasional cruelty of the early 1940s, all drawn from the 850-page novel by James Jones.

And, of course, it leads to the day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt referred to as “a day that will live in infamy,” the day of the surprise attack (at least to most people) on Pearl Harbor.

This film includes one of Frank Sinatra’s finest performances and it’s a non-musical role for the legendary singer. Others in the outstanding cast include Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, a gorgeous Donna Reed and many others in relatively minor roles who would become much better known over the years.

The Oscar Best Picture honor was a great choice by the Academy. Other contenders included “Julius Caesar,” “The Robe” and “Shane.”

“On the Waterfront,” 1954, directed by Elia Kazan.

The strikingly powerful, Oscar-winning “On the Waterfront” featured Marlon Brando’s greatest performance in a career filled with outstanding acting.

This story is about a dock worker who believes he could have been a champion boxer, but now is subject to the whims of a mob-run union* with which his brother has strong ties. Now, he faces major moral decisions.

Brando’s character is pulled in different directions by people including union bosses (including his brother) who want him not to talk to Congressional investigators and by a Roman Catholic priest and a love interest who want him to testify at a hearing.

In addition to Brando, the great cast includes Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger.

This movie won eight Oscars.

Other contenders for the Best Picture award included “The Caine Mutiny,” “Country Girl” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

On the Waterfront
Terry (Marlon Brando), right, tells his brother (played by Rod Steiger) that his life could have been better. “You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money. You don’t understand. I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.” 

 

“Marty,” 1955, directed by Delbert Mann.

The Oscar-winning picture “Marty” was a nice, relatively small movie compared to the other four films that won that award between 1953 and 1957. The competition for the award wasn’t as strong as in some previous years.

The story was adapted for the big screen from a television play written by Paddy Chayefsky. It is a story about a Bronx, N.Y., butcher played by Ernest Borgnine who unexpectedly finds love. He escapes family squabbles and finds the strength to escape from what he believes is a meaningless existence.

Borgnine won the best actor Oscar for his sensitive performance. Also in the cast were Betsy Blair, Joe Mantell and Esther Manciotti.

Other contenders for the 1955 best picture Oscar included “Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” “Mr. Roberts,” and “Picnic.”

Around the World in 80 Days, 1956, directed by Michael Anderson.

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From left, Shirley MacLaine, David Niven and Cantinflas while trying to travel around the world in 80 days.

“Around the World in 80 days” is a rollicking, Oscar Best Picture winning adaptation of the Jules Verne novel. It’s a lot more fun than many Best Picture winners, even though some critics claim it has lost much of its charm over the years.

David Niven heads up the extraordinary cast that includes some new stars in major roles and several existing stars in cameo roles. The other stars in this film included Shirley MacLaine in another breakout role (after winning a Golden Globe award earlier for her part in The Trouble with Harry), the outstanding comic Cantinflas, and Robert Newton. The cameos included Buster Keaton, John Gielgud, Robert Morley, Marlene Dietrich and even Frank Sinatra.

Set in the 19th century, the story is about an Englishman’s bet that he could travel around the world in 80 days. The means of traveling around the world in this pre-airplane and pre-automobile era were by ships, trains, stage coaches, hot air balloon and even elephants.

If you get a chance to see this on the big screen or even a 4K Ultra HD or HD television, go for it..

Other contenders in 1956 included “Giant,” “The King and I” and “The Ten Commandments.”

“The Bridge on the River Kwai,” 1957, directed by David Lean.

I confess “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is one of my all-time favorite films, at least in my top 50. I like it so much that when I saw it was available on 4k Ultra HD, I ordered it.

It is a big screen extravaganza with big messages about the madness of war. Toward the end of the movie, a doctor calls what has happened “madness.” Directed by David Lean, one of the all-time great directors, his “Lawrence of Arabia,” which won another best picture Oscar in 1962, also showed a major character’s descent into madness. More about that in a future post.

The madness here is not just the Japanese forcing British prisoners of war to build a bridge, but a British colonel played by Alec Guinness who persuades the Japanese to let the British control the building of the bridge. The colonel believes that activity will keep up morale for his fellow British soldiers, whom had been ordered to surrender by the British hierarchy.

In the meantime, a former American prisoner of war (played powerfully by William Holden) who had escaped the inescapable island is recruited to join a British team that intends to blow up the bridge.

By the way, there is a great deal of similarity between the POW camp commanders’ warning/welcome to the new POWs in Bridge and the Klingon commander’s warning to Capt. James T. Kirk and Dr. Leonard McCoy in “The Undiscovered Country” when they arrive as prisoners on an icy planet that is known as being an alien graveyard. What the Japanese commander first warns and decades later the Klingon warns is that there are no guard towers because there is no need for them. If you check out the two scenes, you will be struck by the similarities.

In addition to Holden and Guinness, the outstanding cast included Jack Hawkins (no known relation), Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald and Geoffrey Home.

The other contenders included (who didn’t really have much of a chance against Bridge) Peyton Place, Sayonara, Twelve Angry Men and Witness for the Prosecution.

 

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*A personal note: this writer believes unions have done much more good than harm, even though that doesn’t apply to all unions. The writer and his family members have benefited from what his father earned because of his union.