It was just two weeks ago that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced the 2017 films, film stars, and filmmakers that were nominated for Academy Awards. There weren’t many surprises, certainly not among the nine films nominated for Best Picture, among them “The Shape of Water,” which leads the race with a not-quite-record-setting 13 nominations, followed by “Dunkirk” with eight and “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” with seven.
You can watch for my predicting-the-winners post closer to Oscar night, which this year isn’t until Sunday, March 4th. I will wax poetic at that time about who I think will win, as well as who I think should win. For now, I’m still trying to catch up on some of the nominees, particularly in the categories of Best Documentary Feature and Best Foreign Film.
In the meantime, I’ve had a chance to write up a summary review of the previous 89 winners of the Best Picture Oscar. If this seems like a lot of work, know that I first had the idea last year, but it literally took me 12 months to gather my thoughts, and to rewatch some of the winners in question.
Yes, I’ve seen them all. Many more than once. Some several times. A few, such as “The Godfather” (1972) and “Annie Hall” (1977), whenever I run across them on TV. Of course, it goes without saying that some are better than others. Many of the early winners, and some from as late as 1999, have not aged well, and a few should never have won the year’s top prize in the first place. On the other hand, many are quite good, and a handful rank among cinema’s all-time best.
Here are my thoughts on winners from the first four decades (through 1969). Those whose titles are in italics are what I consider to be especially worth watching.
Wings (1927-28): Ninety years have passed since “Wings,” about best friends-turned-WWI aviators, was the first movie (and one of just two “silent” movies) to win Best Picture. That being said, it is still the gold standard in how to shoot an aerial dogfight, and it was a treat to see the movie touched up for Blu-ray, with the gunfire colorized and the score remastered. The story, itself, is pretty good, too: tomboy Clara Bow, in love with one but better suited for the other, enlists as a medic, is sent to France, and later crosses paths with the flyboys as they enjoy a moment of R&R at a Paris nightclub (the champagne bubbles sequence, which must be seen to be believed, is a classic).
The Broadway Melody (1928-29): I recently saw this movie for the first time, and the print was in fine condition despite the film being 89 years old. The first musical to win Best Picture, “The Broadway Melody” is a slight entertainment about two sisters, Hank (Bessie Love) and Queenie (Anita Page) trying to make it on Broadway and sharing the same love interest, songwriter Eddie (Charles King). Did I mention that Eddie just happens to also be Hank’s fiance? Though melodramatic and terribly acted by Love, the film moves at a swift pace and includes some lovely tunes, with the title number being the strongest. And a curiosity: in pre-Hays Code Hollywood, the movie features at least one woman-on-woman kiss, and several scenes of the ladies in various states of undress.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30): Nearly 90 years have passed since this damning depiction of World War I battlefield horrors, but “All Quiet on the Western Front” remains one of the greatest war movies ever made, and rivals perhaps only “Platoon” (1986’s winner) as the seminal anti-war picture. Based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, it tells, from the German point-of-view, of the disillusion that sets in after repeated tours of duty in the trenches of battle. The final scene, which teases us with thoughts of hope as the film’s main character reaches for a butterfly just beyond his reach, only to be killed by enemy fire, is suitably heartbreaking, but that pales in comparison to a pre-Code panning shot along a barbed wire fence, where we see a pair of arms, separated from the torso they belong to, gripping the fencing in terror. A must-see.
Cimarron (1930-31): “Greater than all creation,” boasts the poster for this RKO western about the Oklahoma Land Rush, and if that weren’t boasting enough, the artwork for the poster, showing a gun-wielding Richard Dix, shirt open, costar Irene Dunne behind him in a billowy dress, suggests what, if this were a novel, would be termed a “bodice ripper.” Point in fact, “Cimarron” actually was a novel, written by Edna Ferber two years earlier. I haven’t read the book but the movie itself is much, much less steamy – and less great – than advertising would suggest. It isn’t terrible, but it is one of just three westerns to ever take home the top prize on Oscar night, and the weakest of the three.
Grand Hotel (1931-32): For all of her iconic performances (she received three Oscar nominations for Best Actress), Swedish-born actress Greta Garbo is remembered for just one thing: her brooding line, “I vant to be alone.” It was in “Grand Hotel” that said line was uttered, as Garbo’s character, past-her-prime Russian ballerina Grusinskaya, to the baron (John Barrymore) who has both stolen from her and fallen for her. Their story is just one of several such melodramas taking place inside the hotel, where it is incorrectly said by one character that “People come. People go. Nothing ever happens.” Worth a look if only for being one of the first six degrees of separation-type ensemble pieces, later termed “A ‘Grand Hotel’ theme.”
Cavalcade (1932-33): Life and death, wealth and poverty, love and loss beset two families living under the same roof in turn-of-the-century London. The wealthy Marryots and their servants, the Bridges, together weather the Boer War, the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic, and World War I, as well as the requisite home front struggles. Considering that most of the action takes place in London, this may seem like hardly the stuff of high drama. That being said, it is one of the most technically-accomplished Best Picture winner since “Wings,” and I was never bored…even if I didn’t recognize a single cast member.
It Happened One Night (1934): The first of just three movies (the others being “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Silence of the Lambs”) to sweep the top five categories (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay), “It Happened One Night” is a screwball Capra comedy like no other that finds Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert’s characters, a spoiled heiress and an opportunist reporter, respectively, bicker into each other’s arms. This film, the last pre-Code Best Picture winner, raised eyebrows by showing Colbert and Gable sleeping in the same room (albeit with a curtain separating them). It caused even more fervor when Gable’s character doffed his top, bare-chested beneath, causing undershirt sales to plummet. Neither event is any big deal by today’s standards, but the film holds up on multiple accounts regardless.
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935): Movie critics often rave about the sizzling screen chemistry between male and female costars, but far less is said when the fireworks pop between two well-matched actors of the same sex. This needs to change. The relationship between Charles Laughton and Clark Gable in “Mutiny in the Bounty” is strictly platonic, but their sparring as Captain William Bligh and Lieutenant Fletcher Christian, officers of the HMS Bounty, is the stuff that movies are made of. It is almost a shame, then, that their sparring basically ends after the first half of the movie, for it loses energy then and never regains it. One-half of a good movie.
The Great Ziegfeld (1936): This lavish, three-hour spectacle is two movies in one. Half of it focuses on the life of “follies” scribe Florenz Ziegfeld, played here by William Powell as something of a slick car salesman, weathering numerous marriages and besting his rivals. The other, better half, is basically a filmed staging of his grandest musical numbers. Grandest of them all, and a five-minute continuous single camera shot just before the intermission, is a spectacular staging of “A Pretty Girls is Like a Melody,” with hundreds of dancers positioned on a giant, rotating wedding cake. When people bemoan “they don’t make ‘em like they used to,” this is the type of lost entertainment to which they refer.
The Life of Émile Zola (1937): Another biopic, and, like “The Great Ziegfeld” just one year prior, it is two movies in one. The biography part, which focuses on humanist French writer Émile Zola (Paul Muni) a friend of painter Paul Cézanne and a rags-to-riches scribe of scathing books on public injustice, takes perhaps 40 minutes to unfold. The better, remaining 75 minutes focus on the Dreyfus Affair, in which a French soldier is wrongly accused of treason and imprisoned on Devil’s Island. Zola campaigns to free the unfortunate Dreyfus and finds his own reputation on the line, as it seems public sentiment for or against Zola and Dreyfus can change on a dime (how little has changed). For what its worth, the Dreyfus portion of the movie, which includes one of cinema’s great courtroom sequences, is far superior to the rest of the movie. Joseph Schildkraut, who plays Dreyfus, won Best Supporting Actor.
You Can’t Take It with You (1938): This goofy bit of nostalgia, one of few comedies to win Best Picture, was adapted for the screen from George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s play. It is a minor classic for star Jimmy Stewart and director Frank Capra; their later collaborations in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” are leagues better. The plot finds wealthy banker’s son Tony (Stewart) engaged to stenographer Alice (Jean Arthur), and Alice worried that her free-spirited family will be too much for Tony’s straight-laced parents to handle. Fun but forgettable, it won just two Oscars, Best Director (Capra) and Outstanding Production, aka Best Picture.
Gone with the Wind (1939): When you consider that, even today (after being adjusted for inflation), this remains the highest-grossing movie ever made, it seems surprising that so many people claim to have not seen “Gone with the Wind.” Victor Fleming’s Technicolor masterpiece about feminine resilience and stubborn love in war-torn Civil War-era Atlanta remains a stupendous motion picture. It only lags during its final 30 minutes, when the melodrama gets to be too much. That being said, the last scene, about not giving a damn and tomorrow being another day, makes for what must surely be one of the best endings in movie history. Eight Oscars, all deserved, were awarded to “Gone with the Wind,” and two honorary Oscars as well. Included in the trophy count was a Best Actress statuette for Vivien Leigh (the flighty, but headstrong, Scarlett O’Hara) and cinema’s first Oscar to an African-American, Best Supporting Actress Hattie McDaniel (house servant Mammy). It would seem that at least on this occasion, the Academy was ahead of its time…though Clark Gable – Rhett Butler himself – should have won Best Actor as well.
Rebecca (1940): This early Hitchcock film, his only movie to win the Best Picture Oscar (he himself never won Best Director), was made before he traveled into really dark territory with cross-dressing mamas’ boys (“Psycho”), peeping toms (“Rear Window”), and stalkers (“Vertigo”). Still, the atmospheric adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel about a timid, unnamed woman (Joan Fontaine; the title refers to a character who is often referenced but never seen) who marries haunted widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), is a masterpiece (albeit a lesser one, by Hitch’s standards) of mood, and the did-he-kill-his-first-wife-or-didn’t-he mystery remains utterly unsolvable until the end. Guaranteed: you won’t be able to get the name “Manderlay” out of your mind for a long time after watching this; that would have been an even better name for the film than “Rebecca.”
How Green Was My Valley (1941): This sentimental film, directed by four-time Oscar winner John Ford and told from the POV of young Huw (Roddy McDowall), the son of a Welsh miner (Donald Crisp) in a one-trick-pony of a town that weathers a strike, site accidents, and other misfortunes, holds up well. But looking back, how could it have possibly beaten “Citizen Kane,” arguably the most influential film in the history of cinema, for Best Picture? Simple: “Kane” was ahead of its time, and its victory was in its many nominations, whereas voters felt “Valley” was a safer bet. Alas, this has happened several times since, and will almost certainly continue to happen.
Mrs. Miniver (1942): Uplifting story of a British matriarch (Oscar winner Greer Garson) who must keep her family together as World War II rages in the skies above her suburban London home. Everything comes to a head when a German plane crashes in the River Thames and the wounded pilot is discovered on her property. Garson and co-star Walter Pidgeon are both excellent, and looking back, it seems hard to find many flaws in Best Director William Wyler’s film, aside from the running time and a tendency towards melodrama. That being said, “Mrs. Miniver” simply doesn’t linger long in one’s memory after seeing it.
Casablanca (1943): “Casablanca” is one of those seminal films that, like “Star Wars,” it never ceases to amaze you when you meet somebody who hasn’t seen it. They should. If you are that somebody, know that the movie, set in Morocco’s biggest city during WWII, focuses on the crisis of conscience faced by the cynical Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart, in one of filmdom’s iconic performances), whose popular Café Américain is home to various scoundrels and schemers, some of whom attempt to sell letters of transit to neutral territory to the highest bidder, who may be Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a Hungarian freedom fighter whose lover was once the object of Rick’s affection. No movie is perfect, but “Casablanca,” based on the unproduced stage play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” is damn close.
Going My Way (1944): Full confession: I hardly remember this movie at all. The set-up finds progressive Father O’Malley (Best Actor Bing Crosby) being reassigned to the NYC Catholic church that, for years, has been run by old, crusty Father Fitzgibbon (Best Supporting Actor Barry Fitzgerald), and shaking up the joint, much to the old man’s chagrin. Lightweight stuff compared to the movies that won the top prizes in years immediately before and after; “Going My Way” nevertheless won six Oscars, with its title song and another tune that you may have heard of – the Oscar-winning “Swinging on a Star” – getting airplay for decades on end. Fun fact: Fitzgerald was nominated for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for his performance. Rules were subsequently changed so that this never happened again.
The Lost Weekend (1945): A rare drama for director Billy Wilder, though not without his usual cynic’s touch, “The Lost Weekend” focuses on, as the title suggests, the 48 or so hours “lost” to an alcohol-induced black-out by hard-drinking, down-on-his-luck writer Don Birnham (a never-better, Oscar-winning Ray Milland). While not devoid of humor, this is uncharacteristically dark material even for the acid-veined Wilder. The best – and most surreal – sequence follows a desperate Birnham as he stumbles down Fifth Avenue in search of a pawn shop that is open during Yom Kippur; Wilder and Milland practically put you in Birnham’s shoes.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946): This uplifting drama, about the efforts of three WWII veterans (Frederic March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell) to re-enter their fractured lives after being away for so long, is one of my favorite movies. Even when seen for the first time today, there seems to be nary a false note. Seldom does a three-hour movie so engross you in its telling that the film is over before you know it. Fun fact: Russell, who plays Homer, the youngest of the trio, was a non-professional actor and a double amputee who lost his arms in a training accident. He won two Oscars for the role, one for Best Supporting Actor and another for bringing hope and courage to his fellow vets.
Gentleman’s Agreement (1947): Both ahead of its time and tame by today’s standards, this adaptation of Laura Z. Hobson’s novel about anti-Semitism was one of two films on the subject to be released in 1947. (The other, if you’re curious, was “Crossfire,” although that film began as a tale of homophobia – talk about forward-thinking!) While “Gentleman’s Agreement” doesn’t pack the punch of later films on the subject, it’s worth watching to see Gregory Peck in one of his best non-”To Kill a Mockingbird” performances, and to catch a very young Dean Stockwell (of “Quantum Leap” renown), playing Peck’s son. Peck himself plays gentile journalist Philip Green, who becomes “Phil Greenberg” to write an expose on prejudice by creed.
Hamlet (1948): For as acclaimed an actor as Sir Laurence Olivier was, he starred in just one Best Picture winner. Appropriately enough for Olivier, it was one of his lavish Shakespeare productions, the first (of at least four, by my count) screen productions of “Hamlet,” that long-suffering Danish prince whose mother married her father’s murderer, and whose quest to uncover the truth leads to tragedy for Hamlet and his young love, Ophelia (Oscar nominee Jean Simmons). Triple threat Olivier, who directed, produced, and acted in “Hamlet,” may have made the definitive adaptation of Shakespeare’s complex play, although Olivier’s “Henry V” was better. Pro tip: for an interesting comparison, check out Kenneth Branagh’s adaptations of “Hamlet” (1996) and “Henry V” (1989) as well.
All the King’s Men (1949): Robert Penn Warren’s must-read novel about idealistic southern lawyer-turned-corrupt-politician Willie Stark made headlines for its close parallels of the political aspirations of Louisiana governor Huey Long. Screenwriter-director Robert Rossen’s condensed adaptation won acting Oscars for stars Broderick Crawford (Stark) and Mercedes McCambridge (Sadie Burke, Stark’s assistant). Looking back today, “All the King’s Men” is not as enduring as other noir films like “Double Indemnity,” but it is better than the 2006 remake.
All about Eve (1950): “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” That line, spoken by Bette Davis, is one of the most famous, and most misquoted, lines in film history. It is spoken by Davis as her character, catty aging screen siren Margo Channing, watches in amusement while ladder-climbing ingenue Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) backstabs her way to the Hollywood limelight. Margo is over Eve’s conniving, and until she comes up with a plan to deliver Eve’s comeuppance, she has only liquor and a barbed tongue to cope. The film, as good today as it was when it was released 68 years ago, garned a record-setting 14 Oscar nominations, and to date is the only movie to earn acting nominations for – count ‘em – four female cast members. And every nod was warranted.
An American in Paris (1951): Great choreography, fine City of Light art direction and cinematography, and an impressive physical performance by Gene Kelly that would suggest the best was still to come (his best, almost gravity-defying dancing, would be seen on year later in “Singin’ in the Rain”). That being said, the love triangle at the center “An American in Paris,” is rather conventional, and the 17-minute “non-ending” finale is strictly of the love it-or-hate it variety.
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952): Pundits generally name this Cecil B. DeMille epic as the worst Best Picture winner. That seems a bit harsh, regardless of what you may think of circuses; I can think of a good half-dozen other “winners” that are anything but. The movie is dated, though; Ringling Bros. closed its doors permanently within the last 12 months, and it operated at a mere fraction of its once-fabled, three-ring size for several decades beforehand. The movie is bloated as well; despite a spectacular Act III train crash it is little more than melodrama about a pair of trapeze artists, a clown (Jimmy Stewart) on the run from the law, and their put-upon boss (Charlton Heston, who would reteam with DeMille for much better success eight years later).
From Here to Eternity (1953): The suds are both real (that beach love scene) and soap operatic in this well-acted, but mildly overrated, drama about infidelity, hazing, boxing, and life on a Hawaiian military base that may or may not be Pearl Harbor circa the Japanese invasion of December 7, 1946. I am not a huge fan, perhaps because I wish the adaptation hadn’t done away with the darker themes of the James Joyce novel. (In all fairness, the Hays Code, as well as intrusive military oversight during filming, led to a sanitizing of the source material.) Still, it looks better in black-and-white than most movies do in color, and its strong acting resulted in five Oscar nominations and two wins just in the acting categories alone! Final Oscar count: 13 nominations, eight wins.
On the Waterfront (1954): “I coulda been somebody, I coulda been a contender! Instead of a bum, which is what I am – let’s face it.” So bemoans Terry Malloy, a New Jersey longshoreman and once-promising boxer who resents the local corruption as represented by local mob boss Johnny Friendly, corruption that resulted in the death of Terry’s brother and of Terry’s own role, several months earlier, when Terry threw fight that could’ve shot his athletic career into the stratosphere. Powerful stuff, with Brando (as Terry, giving one of cinema’s iconic performances) deservedly winner Best Actor, Eve Marie Saint (as Edie, the film’s voice of conscience) winning Best Supporting Actress, and Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, and Karl Malden each earning nods for Best Supporting Actor. For better or for worse, “On the Waterfront” will forever be associated with director Elia Kazan’s decision, two years earlier, to rat on suspected Communist sympathizers during the McCarthy-era witch hunts of the decade. That he still won Best Director speaks to this film’s brilliance.
Marty (1955): Something of a weak year, “Marty” was perhaps the most deserving winner of a group of mostly forgettable nominees. In the film, Best Actor winner Ernest Borgnine plays the title character, a lonely Bronx butcher who finally finds love with a teacher, Clara (Betsey Blair), only to find that his family members, particularly his mother (Esther Minciotti), disapprove of the relationship, thinking that Marty can do better. Paddy Chayevski won an Oscar for his screenplay, but this is far from his best work. Funny enough, the far superior “Rebel without a Cause,” released the same year, failed to earn a Best Picture nomination.
Around the World in 80 Days (1956): Five Oscars went to this overblown epic, a mash-up of genres that finds Victorian braggadocio Phileas Fogg (David Niven) wagering that he can circumnavigate – often by balloon – the globe in just 180 days. Assisted by his valet, Passepartout (diminutive Mexican actor Cantinflas), Fogg does just that, he and his companion becoming embroiled in distractions ranging from bullfights to bank robberies. The dozens upon dozens of cameos, provided lots of publicity when the film was released, though most first-time viewers would be hard-pressed to recognize most actors today, aside from, say, Frank Sinatra (appearing as a saloon pianist), John Gielgud (as Fogg’s previous valet), and Peter Lorre (playing a steamship steward).
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957): The defining film about WWII POWs, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” follows the conflict between first, stern Japanese camp commander Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) and Colonel Nicholson (Best Actor winner Alec Guinness), the highest-ranking Allied prisoner, on the best way to build a bridge, and later, between American Shears (William Holden), who escaped from the camp, and his British superior, Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), on whether to go back and blow up the bridge. A glorious adventure with a memorable theme and a bridge (reconstructed) that I was able to visit in person myself. Fun fact: Pierre Boulle, who wrote the book upon which the screenplay was based, collected a writing Oscar in lieu of the film’s actual screenwriters, who were blacklisted and forced to flee the country.
Gigi (1958): Considered by critics to the last great MGM musical, “Gigi,” about a marriage-averse Parisian bon vivant, Gaston (Louis Jourdan) who finds contentment with Gigi (Leslie Caron), the granddaughter of his lady friend. Meanwhile, Gaston’s uncle (Maurice Chevalier) looks on, singing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” Sound creepy? It is. At the time of its release, Gigi won nine Oscars against nine nominations, a first for the Academy. Although the record was broken just one year later by “Ben-Hur,” “Gigi’s” trophy haul today seems something of an excess. The costumes are great, Chevalier has a terrific singing voice, and Paris has seldom looked better, but…nine Oscars? Really?!
Ben-Hur (1959): Surely the greatest Biblical epic ever filmed, “Ben-Hur,” which won a record-setting 11 Oscars against 12 nominations, introduces us to Judah Ben-Hur, (Charlton Heston) a prosperous young man from Judea, born on the same day as Jesus Christ. After an accident puts him on the wrong side of a dispute with friend-turned-Roman legion Messala (Stephen Boyd), Ben-Hur finds himself enslaved on a galley ship, adopted by a nobleman (Best Supporting Actor Hugh Griffith), and competing against Messala in the film’s signature sequence, the oft-copied, never-surpassed chariot race. The only Oscar that “Ben-Hur” didn’t win was for Best Adapted Screenplay (based on Lew Wallace’s novel), allegedly because of a dispute over the writing credit. On the other hand, Heston’s Best Actor statuette seems suspect in retrospect, as his notorious overacting is on full display here. But I digress. Ramming speed!
The Apartment (1960): “The Apartment,” about an ambitious office worker (Jack Lemmon, a genius) who regularly leases out his flat to executives having trysts with their secretaries, is arguably the last Billy Wilder movie that could called “truly great.” Wilder, whose film served as a big middle finger to advocates of the Hays Code, brought an acid tongue to every more that he wrote and directed, but considering that many of us get angrier as we get older, the dark undercurrent to this particular film’s humor makes it resonate more than most other comedies of the era. One more thing: as insurance agent C.C. Baxter and elevator operator Miss Kubelik, Lemmon and costar Shirley MacLaine have sizzling chemistry. Magic time.
West Side Story (1961): “The classic ‘West Side Story’ grows younger.” So sayeth the voiceover for the theatrical re-issue trail for the movie, an extra included on the 50th-anniversary Blu-ray. Frankly, I couldn’t agree more. This modern day “Romeo and Juliet,” about young lovers not from rival families but from rival gangs, the all-white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, still holds up. The lightness of touch in the movie’s choreography is a hallmark that most movie musicals strive for but seldom achieve. And while a few songs, such as the lively “America,” could be offensive, instead they resonate more deeply than ever in todays’s divided, Trump-era U.S. In the pantheon of musicals that won Best Picture, this one, the winner of 10 Oscars, dukes it out with 1965’s “The Sound of Music” and just barely ekes out a win as the very, very best.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962): The desert mirage. The candle-to-sunrise cut. The train ambush. Crossing the Nefud Desert. The execution of Gasim. There are so many iconic scenes, so many classic moments, in David Lean’s extraordinary “Lawrence of Arabia” that it barely even matters that some sequences, such as the raid on Damascus, are said to have been made up. This larger-than-tale biography of British officer, adventurer, and impromptu diplomat T.E. Lawrence is easily one of the greatest movies ever made. And as Lawrence, the blue-eyed Peter O’Toole, in his first leading role, is passionate, determined, and mad. An iconic performance, one that should have won Best Actor (although fans of Gregory Peck and “To Kill a Mockingbird” may disagree).
Tom Jones (1963): I barely remember this comedy of the sexes, except for the fact that it included some terrific costume design and one scene, an “eating orgy” that, though barely titillating by today’s standards, drew gasps when the movie was first released. And I can barely believe that the film’s handsome leading man was a young Albert Finney, who contemporary audiences may remember as the cranky patriarch in “Big Fish” and the even crankier office boss in “Erin Brockovich.”
My Fair Lady (1964): No fewer than eight Oscars went to this lively, Jack Warner-produced, George Cuckor-directed adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s stage play “Pygmalion.” The story is a simple one that finds snobby phonetics professor Henry Higgins betting a colleague that he can take Cockney-accented, wrong-side-of-the-tracks flower vendor Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) into a proper high society lady. Hijinks, romance, and several memorable musical numbers ensue. As the bull-headed ‘enry ‘iggins, Rex Harrison deservedly won Best Actor, but Hepburn, whose singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon, didn’t even receive a nomination.
The Sound of Music (1965): Even among people who claim to despise musicals, you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t seen this timeless classic, a beginning-to-end delight. You already know that the story finds nun-turned-nanny Maria (Julie Andrews) falling in love with Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), the stern father of Maria’s seven charges, only for the “Do-Re-Mi”-singing family to find their safety threatened following Austria’s annexation by Germany. You probably also know that the film is said to have taken several historical liberties with the facts; I learned during the “Sound of Music” guided tour I took in 2000 that little happened the way it was depicted on screen. But somehow, these inaccuracies hardly matter. Somehow, purists, normally hard on movies with historical inaccuracies, give the Robert Wise-directed production a free pass. The Academy certainly liked it, rewarding it with five Oscars, though notably none of them went to Julie Andrews, who lost to Julie Christie for “Darling.”
A Man for All Seasons (1966): This impeccably acted costume drama follows the battle of wits between England’s King Henry VIII (Best Supporting Actor nominee Robert Shaw) and Lord Chancellor Thomas More (Best Actor winner Paul Scofield), with More preventing the lovelorn king from annulling his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in favor of Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave), the first of many disagreements that lead to a decidedly unhappy ending that I shall not spoil for you. Watch for Orson Welles as the boorish Cardinal Wolsey (that cast!). The title come from a line from Robert Bolt’s play of the same name, and describes More as a man who, rain or shine, spring of fall, is unwavering in his beliefs.
In the Heat of the Night (1967): Sparta, Mississippi is the kind of unwelcoming town that no black man – neither in the pre-Civil Rights Act 1960’s nor today – would want to find himself. Nevertheless, that’s exactly where Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) finds himself when a murder is committed and the bumbling local police force, led by chief Gillespie (Best Actor Rod Steiger), begrudgingly accepts his help, after first thinking that thie outspoken Tibbs, dictionary definition of wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time, may even have been the killer. Despite the still-shocking scene that finds Tibbs responding to being slapped by a white industrialist by slapping him back, I have always found the movie to be a bit overrated, though mostly because the film’s denouement is rushed. I also feel that it should have been Poitier, not Steiger, that was nominated for Best Actor.
Oliver! (1968): At last, we have my choice for the worst movie to win Best Picture. “Oliver!” despite the film’s nearly wall-to-wall musical numbers, is a lifeless adaptation of the Charles Dickens literary classic “Oliver Twist,” which, despite the writer’s strong prose, was never the most exciting of reads o begin with. Oliver Reed has fun as Fagin, elderly overseer of a house full of young pickpockets (one of Oliver’s many residences), but no one else seems to…least of all the audience.
Midnight Cowboy (1969): Any fans of the first, and thus far only, X-rated movie to win Best Picture? In some ways, time has not been kind to this moving tale of well-endowed Texas burger flipper Joe Buck, who moves to Manhattan on a whim to try his luck as a gigolo, befriending and learning from dying hustler Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo. The fashions, for one thing, and the fact that for all of the supposed objectionable content, the film seems tame by today’s standards, for another. (The MPAA later reverted to an “R” rating.) On the other hand, the film’s use of split-second flashbacks was dynamic for the time and the technique is commonly used today. And let us not forget that some of the dialogue has become classic (“I’m walkin’ here!”), that the theme of chasing one’s dreams is timeless, and that as Joe and Ratso, Oscar nominees Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman have seldom been better.
Stay tuned for Part Two, coming soon! In the meantime, what do you think? Did “Citizen Kane” get the shaft? Did “Ben-Hur” really deserve 11 Oscars? Is “Oliver!” as bad as I make it out to be?