Monday, January 25, 2010

Oscar Year 1969: A Prelude


The Best Picture Nominees took viewers from the sunny streets of Texas to the seamy underside of Manhattan; from the political upheaval of modern Greece to the languid mountains of the American West; from the lively working class streets of the Bronx to the sumptuous court of Anne Boleyn. 

Moviegoers at the Oscar films spent time with pathetic hustlers and jocular train-robbers; a romantic and dangerous Scottish schoolteacher post-WWI, and a gentle English schoolmaster and his wife circa WWII; a paunchy one-eyed lawman and the girl he reluctantly helps; a kooky free-spirit, her dentist and his Swedish assistant; a good-hearted but doomed Southern lawyer on his final road trip; a cynical emcee at a gruelling dance competition; two couples in moral experimentation in freewheeling modern-day Los Angeles; Depression-era hopefuls and losers dying for the American dream; a troubled college co-ed desperate for human connection; and a real-life hippie and his surrogate family in a deconsecrated church.


Viewers went on a dizzying boat ride to Bolivia; biked across a colorful desolate countryside; attended a hallucinogenic Greenwich Village party and an even more drug-addled Mardi Gras parade; witnessed an assassination, a coronation, a manhunt, the destruction of one innocent and the salvation of another; escaped into the musical romantic fantasies of a matchmaker; and were told that all similarity to actual persons living or dead was INTENTIONAL.


As we near the announcement on February 2 of the Academy Award Nominations for 2009, I am happy to concentrate this week's musings to a look back 40 years--to the Oscar year 1969.  That was the year my love affair with movies--and Oscar--began.  

Starting tomorrow, I'll devote each of the next five days to the nominees in each of the major categories. Tonight, I want to try to explain why that year in movies captured my imagination right from the start.

I was barely old enough to understand the Chicago Tribune, but every day I studied the movie pages, memorized  the advertisements, pored over Gene Siskel's reviews, and pondered the ratings and the reasons why I wasn't allowed to see what were considered the best movies in release. I was obsessed with the titles and the themes of the important new films of the day.  I created my own scenarios for the films I could not yet see due to a strictly enforced MPAA rating system, new at the time, with its G-M-R-X classifications.  I was only allowed into G-rated films, mostly Disney flicks and big musicals. 

Movies were distributed differently.  Major films played in one theater in a large city, often for months at a time, before being widely released to outlying and suburban areas.  After 2-3 years in theatrical release and re-release, they made it to television, often heavily cut and incomprehensible.  There was no home video or on-demand cable.  Movies were exciting in their lack of accessibility. Often, the first time that clips for a film were ever shown on television was on the Academy Awards broadcast. 

I learned to value the critics who looked "deeper into movies", and whose essays re-created the experience of seeing the film. This to me was the essence of a "re-view". (No one did this better than Pauline Kael at the New Yorker, still a hero of mine.)  I often enhanced my personal "scripts" for each film in my imagination by listening to the soundtrack music (on 33 1/3 vinyl albums, many of which I still own).

I eventually saw all of the films by the time I reached college, and with few exceptions, they proved as interesting and aesthetically exciting as I imagined they would be.

The movies of 1969 are often regarded as some of the most interesting and innovative since the Hollywood peak of 1939.  The industry was in upheaval.  Filmmakers were given new freedom to explore and present formerly taboo subjects in exciting and vibrant cinematic terms, looking frankly at sexuality and violence, and using more realistic, profane language.  Old-guard Hollywood was losing ground. The biblical epics, spectacles, and overblown musicals were giving way to the strange popularity of what could only be described as the art film.  College students picked up the new Wave mantle and became a true Film Generation, responding to new styles of photography and editing, contemporary stories or modern spins on traditional narratives, new ways of using music, unconventional actors, and extensions of artistic movements found in literature and art.

For the brief period between 1967-1972, there was a ferment in filmmaking, a willingness to take chances, a new artistic sensibility that we have not seen again in quite the same way. 1969 was the peak of this renaissance. Hollywood has reinvented itself, as many of us must, to survive...but has something truly exciting been slowly lost along the way?

In the next few days we'll take a look at the films and performers who made 1969 one of the most talked-about Oscar years ever.  Titans like John Wayne and Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole were among the company of those who all, remarkably, received their first nominations that year: Liza Minnelli, Jane Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Elliott Gould, Jon Voight, Susannah York, and Goldie Hawn.  A big, classic Broadway musical and a rugged, foreign-language political thriller shared the limelight with a breezy buddy-western, a stately costume epic, and a shocking emotional wringer that was rated X (no one under 18 admitted). 

I hope you will enjoy this week-long look back 40 years ago. 


  1. Looking forward to it! I have a lot of catch-up to do with this year, though: Midnight Cowboy, Z, Hello Dolly, They Shoot Horses, Cactus Flower, and on and on...

  2. Walter, I would like to hear your perspective on these. I am really a fan of most of them...and I am happy to share my enthusiasm for this movie year. Glad you will be following the series.

  3. I too confess that I need to catch up on the films of 1969. The few that I have seen from this era have always impressed me, though. The actors performances and the stories presented are quite memorable and are deserving of a second look. I look forward to your retrospective with great interest.