As I look over the films with acting nominations, already discussed in this series, only two had received Best Picture nominations. In this final installment we will finally catch up with the rest of the slate, including "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", "Hello Dolly", and "Z".
For the most part, 1969 was a groundbreaking and exciting time to attend the cinema. I have some romanticized notions of the era, simply because I was too young to attend many of the most cutting-edge work then on display (and I know that there were some horrendous releases, too). Soon, however, I would get my chance to view, ponder, discuss, and re-view most of these movies, which contributed to the formation of my tastes and preferences in this art form. As a long-time movie-lover and student of the trends, history, and artistry of the popular motion picture, I still believe that the excitement generated by these pictures, the discussions, the word-of-mouth, and the lasting effect on American culture, has never been (and perhaps never will) be seen again in quite the same way.
There was the excitement of something new, a sense of getting to glimpse something that had been forbidden, which united movie audiences into a new kind of communal experience. Movies emphasized contributing to the social conversation, with the best films dealing either directly, or in artistically enigmatic ways, with the issues that fascinated and troubled Americans during the decade: the Vietnam war, student unrest, drug use, the sexual revolution, growing violence, the questioning of conventional society, the Hippie movement, dropping out, and the uncertainty of the American future. To be sure, most of these films are characterized by their bleakness; but they were tempered fiinally by their artistic vision, and willingness to experiment and take chances, so that many of them, grim as they were, became ultimately exhilarating, and drew audiences back again and again to watch and discuss anew.
I loved movie year 1969 in a singular way, as I would soon love the movie year (and Oscar year) of 1970. What was different then was a lack of reliance on hardware or gimmicks; instead, every new film had the freedom to treat a new subject matter in ways that were unavailable to filmmakers in a more regulated time. There was almost no demographic marketing; audiences were trusted to find and respond to great adaptations, or original scripts, or modern interpretations of traditional stories that often and offered ways to contend with the times. As a result, studio executives were mystified by the box office success of the "new cinema" offerings like "Easy Rider". Viewers were enthused and thrilled by multilayered cinematic innovation (serious "adult" subject matter, traditional camera and lighting techniques, unusual and powerful use of music, and brilliant manipulation of time and meaning through montage) that exploded across screens. Movies for the most part were made for anyone, and they were not engineered, as they seem to be today, to appeal to a lucrative narrow market before becoming disposable.
So it's with some sense of amusement that I must admit that a couple of the films offered as the Best of the Year by the Academy in 1969 did not, to my mind, wholly represent what was most cutting-edge or exciting, either in subject matter or technique, but rather reflected the confusion, fear of new subject matter and imagery. It was the result of divided opinion within the industry on what constituted great realism in film art vs. pure entertainment, and whether the two could meet.
It was almost pre-ordained that "Hello Dolly" would earn an Oscar Nomination for Best Picture. The film version of the classsic and popular Broadway musical, directed by Gene Kelly, was heavily promoted by 20thCentury-Fox, which scored big four years earlier with "The Sound of Music". In fact, "Music" screenwriter Ernest Lehman produced this film and editor William Reynolds cut this one as well. The original show boasted a score with standards like the title tune, "It Takes a Woman", "Put on Your Sunday Clothes", "It Only Takes a Moment", and the show-stopper "Before the Parade Passes By". The film cast Barbra Streisand, fresh off her Oscar-win for "Funny Girl", as Dolly Levi the matchmaker, and Walter Matthau, so good a year earlier in "The Odd Couple", as Horace Vandergelder, Dolly's reluctant love interest. Despite the lavish costumes and sets, energetic choreography, and great tunes, it was the miscasting of the leads that ultimately kept the movie "Hello, Dolly" from classic status on the level of "My Fair Lady". Streisand performed well, but was too young for the role, and had no chemistry with Matthau, who appeared uncomfortable throughout. Kelly's direction of supporting players was fine, all of whom helped propel the bedroom-farce-script into a fairly entertaining film, although it often loomed like a dinosaur next to the more nimble and topical fare in this category. However, there are a couple of classic scenes that make "Dolly" worth a look today. Louis Armstrong, who scored a number-one chart-topping hit with his rendition of the title song, made a welcome appearance in a duet with Streisand. The scene made magic. And the big parade sequence is sweeping and irresistable. In the 1960's, big musicals were the staple of the Academy Awards. In the decade alone, four of the 10 Best Pictures were musicals: "West Side Story", "My Fair Lady", "The Sound of Music", and "Oliver!". Nominees also included "The Music Man", "Mary Poppins", "Doctor Dolittle", and "Funny Girl". 1969 also saw "Goodbye, Mr. Chips", "Paint Your Wagon", and "Sweet Charity" as competitors in technical categories. By then, audiences had their fill of the genre, and the budgets devoted to these extravaganzas started sinking the studios. "Hello Dolly" was the beginning of the end for the big, lavish movie musical as an assumed player at Oscar time.
Like the lavish musical, the costume epic (especially a British one) was a staple of the Oscar nominations through the 1960's. Films like "Beckett" and "Lion in Winter" were major Oscar contenders. "A Man For All Seasons", "Lawrence of Arabia" and, to some extent, "Tom Jones" were winners in this genre. After 1969, with one or two exceptions ("Nicholas and Alexandra" comes to mind), the costume epic rarely got made, let alone nominated. "Anne of the Thousand Days" was one of the more interesting entries by virtue of its supremely talented cast headed by Genevieve Bujold and Richard Burton, and a good script based on a literate play by Maxwell Anderson (1948). Hal Wallis, who also produced "Beckett" and, amusingly, "True Grit", was committed to the authenticity of the project. And the story of Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII is one of the most fascinating marital battles in history; it changed the face of organized religion. Burton and Bujold were perfect here, although Burton had done this type of role many times before, and it was wearing out its welcome with audiences and apparently, Academy voters. Irene Papas also made an appearance here, her second Best-Picture film this year ("Z" was the other, of course) playing once again the suffering wife/mistress. Although "Anne of the Thousand Days" looks conventional, its adult subject matter and language made it difficult to film faithfully prior this year. Frank discussions about incest and bastard children, and a more natural treatment of marital love, set this apart from the staid and stately film version of the King's divorce in "Man for all Seasons". This is a lusty and emotional pageant, where "Seasons" was more cerebral. I go back and forth on this one. It's absorbing and great fun to watch; on the other hand it seems to lack some spark of cinematic invention, which keeps me from re-visitng it more often.