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What is the Best Picture of the 1960s?

Best Picture Winners of the 1960sThe 1970s gets a lot of credit for being full of great cinema, but the 1960s had some surprisingly great movies, too. This top ten is pretty darned good, and it reflects the profound transition Hollywood was undergoing throughout the decade. Epic films were still de rigueur at the onset of the decade, but switching from biblical or historical subjects to musicals proved enormously profitable. More profoundly, the studio system was collapsing in on itself, allowing greater exploration of themes that would have been censured before. And so, we have a decade that opens with “light” studio fare taking home the prizes and moving toward winners in 1967 and 1969 that feel like they belong in another decade.

Hollywood had been strangled by the Production Code for decades by the 1960s, which made potentially objectionable material or topics impossible. An influx of European cinema at the start of this decade, however, got around the Code. Audiences flocked to these films and made Hollywood itself itchy to follow their lead. By the end of the decade films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had challenged the Code so thoroughly that the world of filmmaking was opened up almost completely.

The Academy itself was also significantly different from what we know today. It was smaller, and most of its members were studio employees. That meant the studios could exert a lot of direct influence on voters–essentially telling them which movie to vote for. In that way, they could steer the ship much more easily toward their favored children. The Sound of Music, for example, was not well liked by critics upon its release. They found it cloying, sentimental, and simplistic. Pauline Kael went so far as to refer to it as “the sugar-coated lie people seem to want to eat.” And yet, the audience favorite won five Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director).

Musicals were nothing new by 1960 (two of them won Best Picture in the 1950s), but in the 1960s their scale, audience appeal, and profitability skyrocketed. The earnings (and the awards they brought) were tantalizing to the Academy, causing a craze to create more and more elaborate musicals with sky-high budgets. By the end of the decade, however, a string of devastating flops ended the craze. After 1968’s Oliver!, no musical won Best Picture until 2002’s Chicago, reflecting the genre’s fall from grace. Cabaret did nearly win Best Picture in 1972, but it has a completely different feel compared to the musical Best Picture winners of the 1960s. It feels smaller, independent, and much more radical.

It’s a decade where you can clearly see the film industry in flux, especially if you look at the films that failed to win Best Picture–or even to be nominated at all. Movies like Psycho and 2001: A Space Odyssey changed cinema forever, but went unrewarded in the big categories. Looking at the big picture, there’s an underlying search for deeper truth or meaning which shows the movement toward the films of the 1970s.

Tom Jones Movie10. Tom Jones (1963)

At the time of writing, Tom Jones has limited viewing options so I must confess I currently have only seen clips on YouTube. I do not think this method does the film justice at all. It’s highly farcical and out-there in style, which probably isn’t suited for anything other than a full viewing. In clips, it just looks… weird. And dated. I reserve the right to change this movie’s ranking if and when I see it in full, but until then I really don’t know what to make of it.

Should have won in 1963: Of the nominees, Hud. Outside the nominees, The Servant, which may have been far too British for the Academy’s tastes.

The Apartment Movie9. The Apartment (1960)

There aren’t many comedies that use a character’s suicide attempt as a crucial plot point in a romantic comedy. The Apartment walks the razor’s edge between farce and melodrama, and for me, it doesn’t come away unscathed. I can’t reconcile the tone. Shirley MacLaine is wonderfully cast in a love triangle that also dabbles in corporate intrigue, and Fred MacMurray does a great turn as a scoundrel boss. Lemmon’s character is the nice guy who compromises himself in order to succeed, but his goofy performance feels too out-there for the rest of the movie. He’s a great actor, but I always feel he’s straining to sell the comedy side here.

Should have won in 1960: Psycho didn’t even get nominated, but it deserved the win.

Midnight Cowboy8. Midnight Cowboy (1969)

I really like Midnight Cowboy, and there’s no denying it was an audacious choice for Best Picture in 1969, but it’s a great idea that was imperfectly made. The editing is slightly sloppy and the story’s twists and turns from flashbacks to the present feel more jarring than they should. Some elements of the story also feel hopelessly dated, although they were no doubt designed to specifically appeal to the 1969 audience. Still, there’s a great movie in here–and the performances from Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight are fantastic. Most significantly, Midnight Cowboy shows how quickly things had changed after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was released with much of its “profane” language intact in 1966. Within three years the Production Code was so diminished that this movie was allowed to show nudity and sex, and feature a character with a slippery sexual identity (he’s not above being gay for pay, and the movie is not too shy to show him in action).

Should have won in 1969: As much as I love Midnight Cowboy, I’m going with Easy Rider.

My Fair Lady7. My Fair Lady (1964)

I struggle with My Fair Lady because I hate Henry Higgins as a character and when Eliza goes back to him at the end I invariably scream at my TV. It’s a well-made movie with fierce intelligence and wonderful performances–criticism of Audrey Hepburn’s dubbing for her singing voice be damned. So maybe this is my own personal vendetta against Henry Higgins, but this is, after all, my list. To me, this feels like the only one of the Best Picture-winning musicals in the 1960s that deserved criticism that it was overstuffed.

Should have won in 1964: Even fans of My Fair Lady should admit that Dr. Strangelove deserved the win.

A Man for All Seasons6. A Man for All Seasons (1966)

A Man for All Seasons is a good movie that nevertheless feels self-serious, long, and ponderous. It’s about the conflict between an honest man and the society which wants him to compromise in order to save his own life, framed on the true story of Henry VIII’s relationship with Sir Thomas More. More refuses to support Henry’s case to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled, ultimately leading to More’s execution for treason. Not only is More standing for what he believes is right, he’s standing against the threat of unchecked power. That makes it all the more confounding that the movie feels so sterile, so bloodless, so bleached of passion. Robert Shaw does everything he can to liven up the proceedings as Henry VIII, but without much screen time, there isn’t really much he can do.

Should have won in 1966: You could make a case for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and I would happily listen. A Man for All Seasons has brains, but Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has brains and bite.

Oliver!5. Oliver! (1968)

Oliver! is outclassed here, but in 1968 the Academy went mad for it–even bestowing it with an honorary Oscar for choreography (why they chose Oliver! for this honor over West Side Story is something I can’t explain). This madcap musical about a hapless orphan mixed up with a band of pickpockets is appropriately Dickensian and elevated by a sterling performance from Ron Moody. It’s a great movie for audiences of all ages that made a lot of smart choices adapting Dickens (among them, treating Oliver like a supporting player in a movie literally named for him in order to focus on the seedier, more interesting characters).

Should have won in 1968: Nominees The Lion in Winter and, especially, Romeo and Juliet would have been better choices. But the real winner wasn’t among the nominees at all: 2001: A Space Odyssey.

West Side Story4. West Side Story (1961)

West Side Story has been derided for decades for portraying gang violence through dance, but it’s hard not to be swept away watching the movie. The opening sequence is cunningly staged, gorgeously shot, and perfectly performed. It’s so dazzling that you don’t even notice the film’s flaws until you think about it later. This movie is at its best in its staggering dance sequences (or when Oscar winners Rita Moreno and George Chakiris are onscreen). If leads Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood, not to mention some of the dubbed singing, fall a bit flat, it’s easy to forgive because you’re so busy being entertained.

Should have won in 1961: As much as I love West Side Story, Judgment at Nuremberg is a stunning indictment of complicity just as relevant today as it was post-World War II. If I were an Academy voter in 1961 I might vote for West Side Story‘s razzle-dazzle instead simply because it would be easy to think of Judgment as something in the past. Indeed, many critics derided Stanley Kramer’s movies for treating subjects most people already agreed upon as if they were controversial–as if unaware of the ugliness that still lived in many parts of the world, including America, where the Civil Rights movement was raging and movies with prominent African American characters couldn’t even show in large swathes of the country. I think Judgment deserved it more–even in the context of 1961.

In the Heat of the Night3. In the Heat of the Night (1967)

This unlikely pairing of a brilliant African American cop from Philadelphia with the outsider caucasian Sheriff of Sparta, Mississippi is ostensibly a crime thriller, but it also serves as a sort of documentary-style time capsule on racism in America. Some of the racial politics are flawed, especially with the benefit of history, but it’s surprising how much it holds up fifty years later. I think what separates this from a Crash or Driving Miss Daisy style disaster is that In the Heat of the Night doesn’t shy away from the problematic. It isn’t reducing race to a, ahem, black or white issue–instead, it muddies about in all the shades of grey in which racism can exist. And it doesn’t dance around these issues, it dives headlong into them. It gets some right, it gets some wrong, but it remains courageous for bringing out all the skeletons in America’s closet for discussion–which is exactly what America needed as the Civil Rights movement was raging. And it’s a neat little crime thriller, too.

Should have won in 1967: This is a tough call because time has rightly elevated The Graduate, which defined its generation, but In the Heat of the Night spoke to the political climate in 1967 so well. The Graduate is clearly the better movie given the benefit of hindsight, but if you think like an Academy voter in 1967 there would be no denying the urgency of In the Heat of the Night. It was the right movie for the time, even if The Graduate is the right movie for all time. In the Heat of the Night.

Lawrence of Arabia2. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

I’m not actually a huge fan of Lawrence of Arabia but even I can’t deny that it is a staggering achievement. The film itself is stunningly created, feeling almost experimental in its approach to visuals and sound. There’s a scene where Lawrence is playing around with echoes in a canyon that blew my mind when I saw it. Like several other Best Picture winners in this decade, Lawrence is extremely long, and in this case, I’m not sure the length is justified, although that may be my own inability to get properly lost in this movie. As an aside, Lawrence caught the tail end of the trend for historicals-as-epics. West Side Story‘s Best Picture win a year earlier had already begun the shift to epic musicals that would come to define the decade.

Should have won in 1962: Lawrence of Arabia is a monument to the craft of filmmaking and deserved the win.

The Sound of Music1. The Sound of Music (1965)

I mentioned earlier that critics were not kind to The Sound of Music upon its release (again, Pauline Kael referred to it as “the sugar-coated lie people seem to want to eat.”). Audiences, however, adored it, and history has rightly sided with the audience. With exceptional music, indelible performances, and gorgeous filming, The Sound of Music has it all–including a staggeringly long running time (par for the course in this decade). I defy you, though, to find a part you would be willing to cut out in order to streamline this movie. It’s impossible, and in the end it doesn’t matter because it’s equally impossible not to be swept away in The Sound of Music‘s copious charms. It also serves as sumptuous tourism porn for Salzburg, which has greatly benefitted from tourist dollars in the 50+ years since this movie came out. Watching this and Lawrence of Arabia, it makes you long for a decade when directors thought of film as art. They still do, but the scope, the grandeur, the sheer scale of the cinematography, editing, and sound in these films is essentially lost today. So nevermind the running time, turn this movie on and get lost with the delightful Julie Andrews. The opening scene with her on the mountain is up there with Mary Tyler Moore tossing her hat as one of the most charmingly exuberant moments captured on film.

From an industry perspective, The Sound of Music was a game-changer. It’s staggering success supplanted Gone With the Wind as the highest-grossing movie of all time–redefining the understanding of how profitable a movie could be. People tend to blame Jaws or Star Wars for Hollywood’s shift to a bottom-line-obsessed blockbuster factory, but the seeds were actually planted both here and in the nascent success of the James Bond franchise (at the time, the very idea of a franchise didn’t exist). When The Sound of Music became such a success as a road-show picture (playing with higher ticket prices for larger audiences on a bigger screen), studios became desperate to copy the model and fast-track their own epic musicals. There were successes, but there were even more failures (CamelotDoctor DolittleStar!). It just wasn’t until Jaws that studios found a more reliable, profitable way to focus on blockbusters.

It would be easy to dismiss The Sound of Music as a frivolous big-budget musical about a happy-go-lucky nun (many people did). That would be a mistake. There are so many layers to this story. It’s about love, grief, grace, home, finding your place in the world, and having the courage to stand up for what is right no matter the cost. Mostly, though, it’s about holding onto hope that we can all be better.

Should have won in 1965: The Sound of Music.

For more, check out my Academy Award page. Up next: Best Supporting Actor of the 60s.


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This entry was posted on February 2, 2018 by in Academy Awards and tagged , , .
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