Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Oscar Year 1969--BEST PICTURE

It is the eve of the nominations for the 2009 Academy Awards, and also the final entry in my look back 40 years to the movies that competed for the prize in 1969.  It was a groundbreaking year for Oscars and the movie industry alike. Just look at the movies that were released that  were minor contenders in the Oscar race, or received no nominations at all:  Arthur Penn's sophomore effort "Alice's Restaurant"; Bob Fosse's directorial debut "Sweet Charity"; the unclassifiable "Medium Cool"; Visconti's "The Damned"; Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch"; Eric Rohmer's "My Night at Maud's"; Woody Allen's "Take the Money and Run";  "Goodbye Columbus", "I Am Curious (Yellow)", Hitchcock's "Topaz", "Marooned", "Me, Natalie"; and "The April Fools". 

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.

"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"

"Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true".  So begins one of the most likeable and popular movies of 1969, and is still favored by audiences old and new.  The pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in a casual, loosely plotted and beautifully-shot story of the dying west, breezily directed by George Roy Hill,  with an enormously popular score by Burt Bacharach, heralded the era of the "Buddy Film". It's the tale of two outlaws who rob trains, run from the law, exchange witty banter amid the splendor of the West, travel to Bolivia with their best girl, and become legends that never really die.  It combined elements of other of the year's films in a colorful, entertaining package: the male-bonding of "Midnight Cowboy"; the bicycle that Newman rides evolved into the choppers of "Easy Rider"; and the bullet-laden finale south-of-the-border recalled the last hurrah of "The Wild Bunch".  Yet the violence here was soft-pedaled; "Butch Cassidy..." was often referred to as "The Wild Bunch Lite." William Goldma's Oscar-winning screenplay instead focuses on the affability of the two leads, adding Katharine Ross' character of schoolteacher Etta Place for a delicious threesome.  "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" looks like an authentic Western, but seeks to draw parallels between Butch and Sundance and more contemporary outlaws, the hippies and nonconformists on the contemporary scene.  Nowhere was this more evident than in Bacharach's smashing yet anachronistic and contemporary music, and the golden, soft-focus lighting of Conrad Hall's cinematography (both received Oscars).   Among the movie's best-loved scenes is an interlude with Newman, Ross, a bicycle, and the Oscar-winning Best Song, "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head".  The movie boasts a number of wonderful scenes that elevate this movie to classic status:  Butch and The Kid leaping from a cliff into a river despite Sundance's inability to swim; the Gang demolishing a train with enough TNT to blow up a small building; Etta's supposed ravishing by Sundance, to which she asks that "for once I wish you'd get here on time".  The tone is kept light, and even the final shootout spares us any images of death in a final freeze-frame.  With 4 total Oscars, this was the biggest winner of 1969; four years later the Academy finally had its chance to award this irresistable pair by honoring "The Sting" with the big prize.

"Hello, Dolly!"

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.

"Anne of the Thousand Days"

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. 


Film audiences, and the Academy, showed their sophistication by embracing this French-Algerian co-production about the assassination of a liberal democratic hero in Greece in the early 1960's, its cover-up by the ruling military dictatorship, and the subsequent exposure of the scandal by a principled investigator and a crusading journalist.  The story of Gregorios Lambrakis was still fresh in the minds of the politically aware. This is a quick, suspenseful, angry film that also received nominations for  Director Costa-Gavras, Screenwriter Jorge Semprun, and also won for Foreign Language Film and Film Editing (in what must have been a close race with "Midnight Cowboy").  This was a film meant to stir up audiences.  During a prologue in which government officials are comparing communists (i.e., radicals and liberals) to a fungus to be eradicated, a post-credit title card proclaims that the film is INTENTIONAL!  All similarity to persons living or dead was intended by the filmmakers, and was signed by the director and screenwriter. As proof of the dangers posed by making "Z", the music score, composed by Mikis Theodorikis, who was under house arrest at the time as a ploitical dissident, had to be smuggled out of Greece to be used in the film.  The filmmakers used the techniques of a suspense thriller (brilliantly quick cutting, dense plot, lots of characters and points of view, sudden violence, and emotional music) to hammer home the scandal and corruption "Z" meant to expose. This is a rare foreign-language film that I actually prefer to see dubbed.  It moves so fast, and the quickly flashing images are so compelling, and often so beautiful, that much is lost in reading the subtitles on this densely-written movie.  To enrich the story, a sly subplot emerges involving the politician's infidelities, and his wife's anguish and mysterious acceptance of his death.  This is one of the best examples of a political thriller...thinking of its closest counterpart today, one is tempted to cite "The Hurt Locker", although even that lacks any political point of view, preferring instead to remain an effective suspenser with no partisan overtones.  This film shows us the fair resolution of the investigation, but outrages the viewer with an epilogue that tells the fate of those who were successful; dead, arrested, or exiled by a new corrupt ruling party.  [At the finale of "Z", we are shown a list of things the government sought to outlaw, including: peace movements, strikes, labor unions, long hair on men, The Beatles, other modern and popular music, Sophocles, Leo Tolstoy, Aeschylus, writing that Socrates was homosexual, Eugène Ionesco, Jean-Paul Sartre, Anton Chekhov, Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, Mark Twain, Samuel Beckett, the bar association, sociology, international encyclopedias, free press, and new math. Also banned is the letter Z, which was used as a symbolic reminder that "he  is alive").]
 "Z" was prophetic, as it predicted the Watergate fiascos and other government cover-ups that would soon engulf our national consciousness, and did so without compromise.  As the journalist following the hot lead, Jaques Perrin may be familiar to modern audiences as the producer of the popular documentary "Winged Migration".  The Motion Picture Academy did itself proud by citing "Z" as truly one of the best movies of 1969.

"Midnight Cowboy" (Oscar Winner)

The only X-rated film to win an Oscar for Best Picture, a sensitive, shocking, sometimes funny, ultimately heartbreaking film, the standard bearer in this category for everything that was new and fresh and exciting in movies at that time, a story about friendship and love between two unlikely, lonely drifters, a glimpse into a world of apathy and violence and desperate longing for love expressed in empty sexual encounters...It's a masterpiece, uncompromising and, according to interviews with Producer Jerome Hellman and Director John Schlesinger, it could not be made today.  What shocked audiences (and the industry) were its frank observations about homosexuality, prostitution, and sordid depictions of poverty and violence underneath the posh exteriors of Manhattan's socialite milieu. What attracted audiences were the characters, and their unseemly but warm-hearted relationship, and their descent into tragedy borne of love and sacrifice.  Opening-day crowds in New York lined up around blocks to see the new film by Dustin Hoffman, counterculture hero of "The Graduate"; and those familiar with the book, or the merely curious, were wondering what might have nabbed it a rating restricting it to adults 18 or older.  Director Schlesinger and screenwriter Waldo Salt perfectly balance the tricky line between realistic grit and cinematic symbolism. Joe Buck's background is sketched through unusual flashbacks employing shock-cutting, imbalanced color, multiple printing, and eerie, atmospheric sound.  A party scene with no-holds-barred depictions of sensuality, psychedelic color and music, is also hilarious as seen through the eyes of the two unlikely protagonists.  John Barry's indelible score is one of the most perfect marriages of theme and character, its lone harmonica amid the orchestration standing out as an appropriately melancholy voice among the overwhelming vastness of the city. Harry Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'" sets a mood of anticipation and buoyancy, only to become more ironic and desperate as the film progresses. Hoffman's Ratso, limping, hustling, and fast-talking to survive, overturns expectations, erasing all traces of Benjamin Braddock's nerdy awkwardness.  Jon Voight becomes a wayward brother to us all. We willingly follow this Candide on his journey to self-discovery and ultimately hard-won freedom, at a terrible price.  It is a fast-moving film about heavy subjects, and its color and humor and eccentric supporting players make this a film to re-visit over and again.  Every role is played perfectly, with unforgettable characterizations by Sylvia Miles, Barnard Hughes, John Macgiver, and especially Brenda Vaccaro. Early audiences may have been baffled by what they had just seen, but subsequent viewings draw us closer to these lives and make apparent their grace in the midst of  decadence and degradation. This is a parable, a rabble-rouser, an aesthetically tough but beautiful film exerience, one of my favorite of all of the Oscar-winning Best Pictures.


  1. What a great series, I loved reading it.

    Could you imagine a film like Z (foreign language, heavily political) gettin this sort o support from the academy today?

    Even with 10 films I doubt they'd be prepared to support something so audacious.

  2. Be, I'm so glad you followed my series. You are so right about a film like "Z" being unlikely to be recognized by the Academy today.
    Great to have you visit.

  3. Good to see that we agree on the best of the '69 nominees and the worst as well. Here are my rankings in the top category, if you're interested.

    01. Midnight Cowboy
    02. Z
    03. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
    04. Anne of the Thousand Days
    05. Hello, Dolly!

    01. Midnight Cowboy - John Schlesinger
    02. They Shoot Horses, Don't They? - Sydney Pollack
    03. Z - Costa-Gavras
    04. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - George Roy Hill
    05. Alice's Restaurant - Arthur Penn

    01. Midnight Cowboy - Jon Voight
    02. Anne of the Thousand Days - Richard Burton
    03. Goodbye, Mr. Chips - Peter O'Toole
    04. Midnight Cowboy - Dustin Hoffman
    05. True Grit - John Wayne

    01. They Shoot Horses, Don't They? - Jane Fonda
    02. The Sterile Cuckoo - Liza Minnelli
    03. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Maggie Smith
    04. Anne of the Thousand Days - Genevieve Bujold
    05. The Happy Ending - Jean Simmons

    As for Oscar nominations, I thought it was the usual suspects with the exceptions of Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Young Victoria in Makeup, The Hurt Locker in Original Score, Harry Potter 6 in Cinematography, and the terrible Secret of Kells in Animated Feature. Those were the only surprises to me. I adored all the nominations for Inglourious Basterds, Fantastic Mr. Fox in Original Score, and especially Bright Star in Costume Design. If you haven't yet, see Un Prophète as soon as possible. I just watched it this morning and was floored.

    As for Pulitzer predictions, I'm falling behind this year.

  4. A great incisive post Tom! Always thought 69 was one of the best years in film. I can remember seeing Midnight Cowboy as a young girl and when one of the mothers realized what it was about. Almost comical to think of what an X rating meant back then versus now. (looking back I am pretty sure she thought it was a western).The song "Everybody's Talking" is still just as haunting now as it was then.