The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1969

I have mixed feelings about 1969. I love that the Academy finally went with a gritty film more reflective of the post-1967 cinematic landscape, and I like Midnight Cowboy a lot and think it’s a great film, but — I really, really love Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And that love makes it really hard to be objective. So, while I’m totally okay with Midnight Cowboy winning Best Picture and this category, I’m not gonna even begin to pretend like I’d vote for it.

As for the rest of this year, John Wayne wins what is essentially a career achievement Oscar for True Grit, which, I’m actually totally cool with. All the major nominees here either won Oscars (mostly, Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight), were never going to win for their performances (Richard Burton. Because, while he was great, if they didn’t give it to Peter O’Toole in 1968, he wasn’t getting it here. Speaking of which…), or they shouldn’t have won for what they were nominated for in the category (Peter O’Toole). So I’m okay with it. Plus, it’s John Wayne. Him, Henry Fonda or Paul Newman could have won an Oscar any year over any other performance and I’d have been okay with it.

Then, Best Actress was Maggie Smith for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (talked about here). This is a rough category for me. I talked about it in the article, but, my favorite performance was by the most marginal of the nominees (and the other deserving nominees won eventually), so I’m ultimately okay with it, even though I’d have voted differently. Best Supporting Actor was Gig Young for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (talked about here), which I like, and Best Supporting Actress was Goldie Hawn for Cactus Flower, which I also like (sort of. I’ll get to it eventually). So, that’s 1969. I’m pretty okay with it, even though it doesn’t feel ideal. It’s a big of a tough pill to swallow, which, coincidentally, is what a lot of the films of the 70s were about, so that’s perfect. And on top of that awesome connection, let’s get into this category…


And the nominees were…

Costa-Gavras, Z

George Roy Hill, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Arthur Penn, Alice’s Restaurant

Sydney Pollack, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

John Schlesinger, Midnight Cowboy

Gavras — Z is a French film about a Greek political assassination. And, while I don’t really like it all that much (there’s just something with me and foreign films. Which, is weird, since, being someone as into film as I am, you’d think my added patience and tolerance for subtitles and stuff would help me. But no), I do like that they say up front, “Any similarity to persons living or dead is intentional.” I like that a lot.

Basically, it starts with a lot of boring stuff. Like, if you suddenly got thrown into CNN covering the daily Senate meetings. And then, like if it were a faux-documentary like District 9 or something, the big military dude attempting the coup gets up and is like, “We need to bomb all the hippies and protect conservative values!” That kind of thing. Then we see a bunch of rallies, and what goes on there. Behind the scenes, all the red tape and such, and then, the dude giving the speech (which is very liberal, about getting rid of nukes and stuff), after he gives it, is killed in the street. And then afterwards, you see the police cover it up and be like, “Oh no, it was just a drunk driver. Totally an accident. Not like JFK at all…” But then we cut to the hospital, where they’re like, “What are you fucking high? this dude was beaten to death with a club, sodmized thirty or forty times and carved with a knife with the dude’s name who killed him.” And then people slowly start uncovering all these conspiracies about how it was really the government behind it (at least, the conservatives).

So that’s the film. I thought it was okay. I wasn’t terribly interested in it. Though maybe that’s just because it was in a foreign language and was a type of film that I don’t normally go for. Like, if it were something I like as a genre, I’d be more inclined to enjoy it. But because I don’t like political thrillers (or political anything), I was less inclined to enjoy it. Because it’s not like I hate all foreign films. It’s just — the ones I do like tend to be more in line with stuff I’d go for in any film.

So, as for the effort — it was fine. But it’s pretty clear that I’m not gonna vote for it. I use the Federico Fellini defense here, which is, if he didn’t win for 8 1/2, this shouldn’t win. The Academy made the rules, I just use them for my own devices.

Hill — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a perfect film. Because, it has everything. It’s a buddy comedy, it has witty dialogue, fun characters, movie stars, is entertaining, has iconic images and moments. And on top of that, it’s a western. But it doesn’t matter that it’s a western. But, because it’s a western, it also works within the mythos of the western genre. And it has “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” So really it does have everything.

It’s about — well, guess who. And, honestly, I’m not going to give you a summary of it, because you should have seen it by now. As a person reading this blog, if you are at all interested in seeing good movies (whether your’re a film person or just some regular schmuck who likes the shit they release every weekend), you need to see this. It is almost impossible for anyone to not like this film. And if you are a film person, you have no excuse to not have seen this already. And if you have, you know how awesome it is and don’t need me to talk about it.

This is my favorite film on this list, and will be the film I vote for. This has about 80% to do with my love for the film, and about 20% to do with the fact that I do think it’s a worthy choice. But, Hill won for The Sting, so I’m cool with Schlesinger winning. I just have to vote for Hill.

Penn — Okay. I’m doing this as a service for you. If you have not heard Arlo Guthrie’s song “Alice’s Restaurant,” you need to go ahead and do that right now.

It’s one of the great pieces of songwriting. If you’re from the New York area (or other places, probably, but I know this for certain, because, I lived it), you’ll know that Q 104.3 (a station I was raised on) plays the song every Thanksgiving, every six hours. The whole thing, uninterrupted. It’s amazing. Also, I totally know all the words to it by now. Very proud of that. If you look for me on Thanksgiving, you will probably find me looking for an excuse to sing along to this in public places.

Anyway, this film is basically the song, in film form. Kinda. I mean, it is, but, it’s also more than that. Because, if you watch it, you’ll see a real snapshot of the whole 60s counterculture movement. That’s what this feels like. A film about that. And it’s very 60s. It’s not an amazingly good film — the song is actually a lot better than the film — but it is a very interesting film. I look at this as an archeological piece more than a film. If I watch this, I will see a very specific portion of the 60s. Wouldn’t vote for it in a million years in this category (Arthur Penn should have won for Bonnie and Clyde over this), but I like that it’s here.

Pollack — They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a film unlike almost any I’d ever seen. I went in knowing nothing about it past the fact that it had one of the most memorable titles in film history.

It’s about a dance competition. I know. Edgy, right? You’d never guess it from the title — and that’s why it works. A dude drifts into Los Angeles, trying to be an actor. He enters a gym or hall or something, and is corralled into going inside by the Emcee (Gig Young). He goes in and finds out about this dance competition, which is — if you and your partner can dance the longest, without stopping, you win a shitload of money. I forget how much it is, but it’s a lot for seemingly an easy thing. So he gets partnered up with Jane Fonda, who also doesn’t have anyone to partner up with. And they dance together, and the way this works is, at first it’s just simple dancing without stopping. But, in the interest of giving people a show (because people pay entrance fees to sit in the bleachers and watch), they make it tough. They put them through physical challenges. They have to dance on roller skates. They have to have roller derbies, and if you finish in last place, you’re out. Crazy shit like that. Making it real difficult on them. And they’re dancing for like, ten plus hours a day. And over the course of the film, we see all the other people trying to win the money ($1,500. I looked. But it’s back then, so, that was a lot of money, especially when you’re starving and need it).

And the dude and Fonda get to know one another, and start dating, and the Emcee convinces them to get married during the competition, which they do. And the whole thing gets tougher and more grueling (and more competitive) — like, one dude dies during a race (and Fonda is his partner that time, so she has to cross the finish line with his dead body (on roller skates) across the finish line before last so she’s not eliminated), one lady has a breakdown, shit like that. And eventually, the Emcee tells them, “Look, this isn’t about the prize money. It’s about entertainment. Of the $1,500, you have to pay taxes. Plus, room and board here, renting the skates, etc. etc. You’re only gonna end up with like $200.” So Fonda and the dude withdraw from the competition, because they find out it’s all a sham.

And then — here’s where the film takes on a crazy turn — as they’re leaving, Fonda tells the guy that she hates life and wants to kill herself. But she says she can’t do it. She can’t pull the trigger. And the dude agrees to do it for her. So the film — on a fucking dime — becomes about assisted suicide. And the final shot of the film is the cops coming and asking the dude why he did it, and he responds with — the film’s title. Get it? Yeah — it’s a really, really great film.

Sydney Pollack directed the hell out of it, too. He actually put the camera on roller skates in order to capture a lot of the shots. The camerawork is very dynamic here, and adds a lot to the film. I actually really considered voting for Pollack here for a good second, until I realized he won Best Director in 1985 for Out of Africa, a film I don’t think he should have won for (objectively. In the category — well, we’ll see). So, that means he’s out for me. He got his Oscar, and there were two other choices.

Schlesinger — And, Midnight Cowboy. Could there have been a stranger film to ever win Best Picture? Do most people ever stop and think about what’s really going on here?

Jon Voight plays a cowboy. He works washing dishes in a restaurant and dreams of better things. What better things? He wants to go to New York and work selling himself for sex.

Most people don’t think about that part.

And he’s really naive. Like, very soon, he’s scammed out of money because people take advantage of him. And, he knows nothing about ending up with women. He openly asks them on the street if they want to sleep with them. And eventually one woman accepts his offer, but she doesn’t understand that he thinks money will be exchanging hands. And when he brings it up, she starts crying and ends up having to give her money.

Not to mention — the whole time, we get flashbacks of what happened to him before the film began. Which was, he used to date this girl, who used to be the town whore but gave all that up when she was with Voight. And one night, all the men in the town are like, “Bullshit, we still want to fuck you,” so they get Voight and the girl and gang rape them both. So that’s all part of who he is.

And then Voight ends up meeting Hoffman. Ratso Rizzo. He’s a con man who originally scams Voight out of money. So now Voight goes to a movie theater, trying to blow guys for money. But afterward, the dude is like, “Yeah, I’ve got no money.” Then, the next day, Voight runs into Hoffman, and is like, “Give me my goddamn money!”, which Hoffman isn’t expecting. So he’s like, “Okay, come with me, I’ll help you out.” He lets him move in with him — he’s squatting — and they start working together. They pick pockets and stuff in order to help Voight become a gigolo. And over the course of the film, Hoffman gets more and more sickly.

Then the two go to a party, and they meet a Paris Hilton-type character, who agrees to have sex with Voight for money. They do, and she says, “I’ll set you up with my friend.” But then, he sees Hoffman in bed, really sick, and instead, goes and beats up an old man for money. And using the money, they take a bus down to Miami. And on the bus, Hoffman gets worse and worse, and ends up dying just as they reach Miami.

That’s the film. It’s really great. Honestly, I have no problem with it winning all the awards it won. But, like I said, still voting for Hill. I have to stick by my favorites.

My Thoughts: I’ve made my choice clear, but I feel like I should go through them all anyway.

This is a surprisingly good category. I didn’t much care for Z as a film, but Gavras did a good job with it. Still, he’s my #5. If Federico Fellini didn’t win Best Director for 8 1/2, he’s not winning. Then, Alice’s Restaurant — great film, snapshot of the 60s, but not gonna win Best Director. I think we can all agree on that. Which is a shame, since Arthur Penn never got an Oscar for the great career he had.

So the category for me comes down to Sydney Pollack, John Schlesinger and George Roy Hill.

Now, Sydney Pollack — I know he got an Oscar in 1985, so, really, that’s my excuse for eliminating him. Specious logic, I know, but, anything to make it easier. So it’s really George Roy Hill vs. John Schlesinger for me. And since I always side with Butch and Sundance, Hill is my vote. But I’m okay with Schlesinger winning. You have to stand by your favorites.

My Vote: Hill

Should Have Won: Hill, Schlesinger

Is the result acceptable?: Yes. It was really one or the other. And Hill got his Oscar for The Sting. So this is very okay.

Ones I suggest you see: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — you need to see it. The end.

Midnight Cowboy — great film, classic film. If you’re a serious film person, you probably don’t want to be caught having not seen it. Sadly, a lot of people probably will go through life having not seen it, especially film people. Don’t be one of them. See it.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a great, great film. I love this film so much because it’s so unique. It’s a film about a small corner of the world, a tiny ass gym, and a dance competition. And these random ass people involved. Everything about it is so unlike anything you’d ever see — and it’s engaging! It’s so engaging and such a great film. I can’t recommend this enough. It’s really — if you hate the monotony of most films — see this one. I promise you haven’t seen anything like it. (Except maybe Xanadu. This is like the dark version of Xanadu.)

Alice’s Restaurant — if you’ve heard the song (and you totally should. It’s a brilliant piece of Americana, and just brilliant songwriting in general), you’ll get more out of this film than those who haven’t. And also — if you like the 60s, or want to see a snapshot of the culture (or a particular part of it) at a specific time. Other than that, you won’t get anything out of this film. (Unless you’re a fan of Arthur Penn. Then you probably will get something out of it.)


5) Gavras

4) Penn

3) Pollack

2) Schlesinger

1) Hill

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