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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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.

 

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“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.”

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Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music”

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.”

 

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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.”

 

 

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.

Enter the ‘Golden Age’ of Oscar winners

The veritable explosion of great films beginning in the late 1930s earned that era the “golden age” of Hollywood tag. And many of the great films from that time wouldn’t be truly recognized for their artistry until many years later. The next five Oscar best picture winners described below are what was regarded as the cream of the crop.

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Among “You Can’t Take it With You” cast were, from left, Lionel Barrymore, Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold.

You Can’t Take it With You,” 1938, directed by Frank Capra.


A great comedy with tremendous cast directed by Frank Capra was the second best picture Oscar he won. The tremendous cast included Jimmy Stewart, Jean  Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold, Mischa Auer, Ann Miller, Spring Byington, H.B. Warner and Dub Taylor. It was adapted from a George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play. Part of that adaptation included changing the play to allow Lionel Barrymore, who had a broken hip, to perform in a wheelchair. The highly entertaining film is about a man from a family of uptight, rich snobs who becomes engaged to a woman from a good-natured but decidedly eccentric family.

The competition for the 1938 honor was considerable-. It included “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Boy”s Town,” and the French classic “Grand Illusion.

 

“Gone with the Wind,” 1939, directed by Victor FlemingEPSON MFP image

“Gone with the Wind” is more than just the third movie Clark Gable starred in that won the best picture honor in the 1930s. It was a landmark film with some flaws that are rarely discussed.

This sweeping drama was the first Oscar winner released fully in color and it makes spectacular use of that palette. It would be several years before another movie in color won the best picture honor. At nearly four hours long, the film included an intermission and that was the case when this writer took a field trip while in high school to a downtown Louisville, Ky., (when downtowns still had theaters) movie theater and decades later at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

In case you haven’t read or heard, “Gone with the Wind” is the story of how the lives of southern aristocratic, slave-owning, plantation owners changed from the pre-Civil War days, during the war and after it. It’s a story of troubled romances, suffering and a change in lifestyle that some suspected would never happen.

The problem is the strong anti-union sentiment, the phony portrayal of the supposedly fine lives for slaves, a sympathetic nod to the Ku Klux Klan and terrible negative stereotypes of blacks.

That’s not to detract from the power of the film nor its great cast that includes Gable, Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Hattie McDaniel and Thomas Mitchell.

The competition for the 1939 honor was top notch. Those other films included “Dark Victory,” “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Ninotchka, “The Wizard of Oz” and “Wuthering Heights.”

“Rebecca,” 1940, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Despite his tremendous influence on film and the great library of films he created, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” was his only movie that won the best picture Oscar. That same year another of his films, “Foreign Correspondent,” also was nominated for best picture.

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Alfred Hitchcock,, left, with “Rebecca” stars Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier.

 

The extraordinary cast included Lawrence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders, Judith Anderson, and Nigel Bruce. The story involves an unsophisticated, self-conscious bride who is tormented by the memory of her moody and prominent country gentleman husband’s dead first wife.  In addition to Hitchcock’s other film, the competition in 1940 include “The Grapes of Wrath,” Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” and “The Philadelphia Story.”

“How Green Was My Valley,” 1941, directed by John Ford. 

One of great director John Ford’s greatest motion pictures, “How Green was My Valley” may be one of the most underappreciated winners of the Academy Award for best picture. In 1941, a New York Times critic called the movie “a picture of great poetic charm and dignity, a picture rich in visual fabrications and in the vigor of its imagery.” The movie is a story about a group of Welsh mining people, their families’ lives and a few sturdy leaders. It’s a story about how black coal darkened the lives of those who mined it and the destruction to the verdant valley in which they live.

The cast includes Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Hara, Donald Crisp and Roddy McDowell. Once again in this golden era, there were several outstanding films that lost out to the winning film. Those competitors included “Citizen Kane,” regarded by many critics and cinematic enthusiasts as the greatest picture of all time; “Here Comes Mr. Jordan;” “The Maltese Falcon,” “Sgt. York” and “Suspicion.”

 

Mrs. Miniver,” 1942, directed by William Wyler

Starring an always impressive Greer Garson, “Mrs. Miniver” was made during World War II. It shows the cruel effect total war has upon civilized people. The New York Times critic wrote in 1942, “It is the finest film made yet about the present war and a most exalting tribute to the British people who have taken it gallantly.” Garson is magnificent as Mrs. Miniver whose family lives in a small English town before the war sends members away. Her character’s strength even shines when she encounters a German flier in her home. In addition to Garson, the cast includes Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright, Reginald Owen and  Henry Travers, The other competitors for the 1942 Oscar included “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “The Pride of the Yankees,” “Talk of the Town” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

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Mr. and Mrs. Miniver with family.