The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1969

 Ah, 1969. The year, as I like to call it, 1967 took effect. Sure, the film landscape changed in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde and all that, but the Academy was pretty much business as usual until now. This was their first real embrace of the new type of filmmaking that was taking over the industry. I’m still amazed it happened.

Midnight Cowboy, outside of Best Picture, won Best Director for John Schlesinger (talked about here). He’d had one of those coming for a few years, so it’s nice to see a perfect scenario for him to win one. Best Actor was John Wayne for True Grit (talked about here), which — John Wayne was one of four actors who could have won an Oscar at any point and it would have been okay, no matter who he beat. The other three were Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, and after a certain period, Paul Newman. They transcend the awards. So him winning was automatically a good decision (even though it’s a shame about Richard Burton). Best Actress was Maggie Smith for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (talked about here), which is nice. Maggie is awesome. I’d have gone another way, but the decision was fine. Best Supporting Actor was Gig Young for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (talked about here), which, in a weak category, it was the best decision. And Best Supporting Actress was Goldie Hawn for Cactus Flower (talked about here). I like the decision, but man, was Catherine Burns amazing in Last Summer.

1969 is a hugely successful year. All the decisions are terrific. And a great year, of course, starts with a great Best Picture winner.


And the nominees were…

Anne of the Thousand Days (Universal)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (20th Century Fox)

Hello, Dolly! (20th Century Fox)

Midnight Cowboy (United Artists)

Z (Cinema V)

Anne of the Thousand Days — Movies like this are why I’ve always loved history. Whenever I was in class, learning about events like this, it wasn’t that I found the history particularly interesting. That is, I was never interested in the events from a historical perspective (how they helped shape history, how they altered the course of human events), but instead I was interested in picturing just how these things happened. What it was like to experience them. I liked to use the facts we were given in order to create the situation in my mind, and see it play out. That’s basically what film (and writing) is anyway — you have a story or situation in your mind, and there’s an outline that’s followed, but everything else — you get to play. What they say, what they did in the situations between the big moments. That’s why I always liked these historical films.

This one is about Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. We begin with Henry, bored with his wife who cannot bore him a son, having an affair with Anne’s sister Mary. Anne is in love with a boy and cannot care less what her sister does with the king. And one day, Henry sees Anne and is immediately infatuated with her. He wants her. She wants no part of him, and openly tells him so (even though talking that way to the king is grounds for being put to death). And this only makes Henry want her more. So he goes about seducing her. He shows her all that she can have if she agrees to be his mistress. And she starts to become intoxicated by the power she’ll have, and agrees to be his mistress. And what she does is — she starts undermining all those close to Henry. All those who have his ear. She makes it so she’s the only one who can influence him. And he desperately wants her to have a son, but she says she won’t bear him an illegitimate child. So this is when he goes about seeking the divorce from his wife (which is the big moment in history where he breaks away from the church and starts his own).

So she becomes his wife, and also discovers that she loves him. Now the only snag is bearing him a son. She tells him she’ll bear him one (very confidently, too), but ends up having a daughter instead. And because of this, Henry loses interest in her. Though she continues to use her power to manipulate her husband (such as telling him she won’t sleep with him unless he puts Sir Thomas More to death, which is a great parallel to A Man for All Seasons. That’s the great thing about all these films — they have just enough overlap to where they can inform the events in one another in interesting ways), which doesn’t help at all, since when she does give birth to a boy, it is stillborn.

And eventually Henry seeks to get rid of her and has her put on trial for adultery. He tells her he’ll spare her life if she agrees to annul their marriage and make their daughter illegitimate. Anne refuses, preferring to die than make her daughter illegitimate. So she’s killed, Henry marries Anne, and Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth, remains an heir. Which, if you know your history, you’ll find out is the same Elizabeth from Elizabeth, that Cate Blanchett played, as well as Shakespeare in Love, who Judi Dench played. And, more closely related to these films — Glenda Jackson played her in Mary, Queen of Scots. So all of these films are very closely related. Which is why I like them so much.

What’s great about this film (aside from the great history lesson you get from it), is, first and foremost, the performances. Richard Burton and Genevieve Bujold are amazing here. I thought Bujold was good enough to win Best Actress (and Burton Best Actor). They’re incredible. The other thing I like about it is watching Anne change over the course of the film. I love when people undergo these radical changes. Especially when it’s so natural and gradual that you don’t even really notice it until after the fact. Here, Anne has her life planned at the beginning of the film (another thing I like. When films start off like that) — she’s gonna marry this guy, have his children, and that’ll be her life. Then she meets the king and everything changes. And then she changes. And then she gets much more intoxicated by power, and scheming, and we see her go through all these positions of power over the course of the film. It’s amazing.

I really love this film. And honestly, in another year (like 1968), I’d probably vote for this. But here, it’s a third choice at best. It might be my second favorite film on this list in terms of watching them, but in terms of what should have won, this is a third choice at best. It’s too “old Hollywood” to win.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — What a perfect film. George Roy Hill, Paul Newman and Robert Redford caught lightning in a bottle twice. Twice! It’s incredible.

This is one of the most famous movies of all time, one that everyone should have seen. What’s really great about it is how it not only works as a standalone film, as a comedy (a buddy comedy at that), as entertainment, and as a western. The thing about the western as a genre is how every film made within the genre not only acts under the genre guidelines (the sheriff, the gunfight, the whore with the heart of gold, the half-breed — if you’ve seen more than one western, you know exactly what I’m talking about), but also is a part of and also informs the myth and history of the genre as well. That is to say — the genre is one that looks back on American history. Early westerns were about taming the west. Manifest destiny. Moving out west and making this wild territory safe for women and children and progress. And over the course of the history of the western, you actually saw it live a life, so to speak. The western sort of existed (in features) between 1915 and 1975. Give or take. And over that time, you saw them start in the early days, and by the end, they were in the civil war days. They actually did span history as the genre was born and died out. There’s a lot to say there, but basically, what I’m getting at, with this film, is that it actually does work as part of the western genre in that — it’s a film that not only pokes fun a bit at some of the western conventions (“Think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?”), but also is a part of them. The film is about the death of the outlaw. Just like The Wild Bunch. Both films are actually, when you boil them down — the same film. And I love that. It’s the same way Unforgiven is the epilogue, in a way, to the genre. I love that these films are both part of the genre and also look back upon the genre.

And like I said, you should know what it’s about, so you’re not getting a synopsis for it. Just know that it’s perfect, and even though Midnight Cowboy was probably the best choice in terms of the time period (they really needed to get a “70s” type film to win Best Picture), I’m voting for this. I love it to much not to.

Hello, Dolly! — I love these 60s holdovers. My favorite bit of trivia about the 60s (which is one of the reasons I love the Oscars. They really do mirror the history of Hollywood) is that, from 1960-1969, in only three years was a musical not nominated for Best Picture. Those years were 1960, 1963 and 1966. Though, admittedly, 1960 had The Alamo and 1963 had Cleopatra, which were basically the same things I’m talking about but without music. 1966 was really the only one (though I guess you could consider The Sand Pebbles as one.) Also, just to run down specific films: 1961 had West Side Story, 1962 had The Music Man, 1964 had My Fair Lady, 1965 had The Sound of Music, 1967 had Doctor Dolittle, 1968 had Oliver! and this year had Hello, Dolly!

If the 60s are representative of anything, it’s the downfall of the studio system and the rise of “New Hollywood” — the Bonnie and Clydes, the Easy Riders — the films that would epitomize the 70s. The end of the studios and the rise of the auteurs (and fall of the production code as well). And the thing about Hollywood is — in the 50s, they lost all their theaters. They had monopolies on production, distribution and exhibition. And the Paramount Decision made them give up the theaters, which, in the 50s, gave rise to Drive-Ins and independent cinema (exploitation, those low budget movies that they’d show in drive-ins). Not to mention, the rise of televisions and the baby boom, moving everyone to the suburbs, meant everyone (especially younger people) now had more disposable cash. Kids would go to the movies during the day with their friends. So studios, losing audience (there was a huge attendance slump between 1950ish until 1972, when The Godfather came out. And then Jaws and stuff came out and the blockbuster brought people back, which is really why cinema is the way it is today), tried to bring people back into the theater with spectacle. In the 50s it was Cinerama and VistaVision and Cinemascope. Ultra-widescreen.

In the 60s — it was about these big budget movies. Like Cleopatra. Like The Sound of Music. Hollywood started pouring huge chunks of cash into these musicals. And some of them were very profitable. But toward the end, you started seeing more and more huge bombs. Just look at the list of Best Picture nominees. There’s a definite drop-off in quality as you go along, isn’t there? Some of them are legit great, and toward the end, it’s like — “Yeah, I can sort of see it, but it’s kind of just there in name only.” These musicals were basically the last bastion of the studio system. That’s why they kept voting for them. And then, by 1967, you see — they’re so done with the musical. You look at 1965, The Sound of Music is the big film there. 1967 — Doctor Dolittle is, “What? Why is that there?” The reason it’s there is twofold: first, they spent a lot of money on it and it bombed at the box office. It was a big film that failed, and it seems like they voted for it because it was supposed to be there and as sort of a consolation prize. And the other reason is simple — the older members of the Academy (which, as we know, are the majority of the Academy) are averse to change. It takes widespread change in order to get them to change their ways.

So while you have four progressive choices in 1967, you still have that Dolittle holdover. And then you see in 1968 them trying to go back to the “good old days,” with Oliver! and Romeo and Juliet and Funny Girl and The Lion in Winter, though wholly unconvincingly (I don’t think anyone thinks that Oliver! should have really won Best Picture — before you take context into account. And maybe even then, too). And then here, you see them sort of still trying, with Hello, Dolly! to maintain some sense of “old Hollywood.” Though, if you see the film, you’ll see how badly it shouldn’t be here. It’s a big, lumbering mess of a musical. It’s really good, and entertaining, but it should not have been anywhere near Best Picture. At all. But the fact that it’s here is great for someone studying film history (and the Oscars), since it really does parallel what was going on in the industry at the time.

The film is about a matchmaker who goes to Yonkers to find a wife for Walter Matthau, a grumpy rich man. And basically she ends up being his wife. But the film is like two and a half hours, and there are lots of subplots. It’s really a very lifeless musical. The whole thing just feels flat. A lot of these 60s musicals feel flat.  This film really shouldn’t be here at all. It’s nice and all, but it’s a very weak choice. No one in their right mind would vote for this over the other choices. At all.

Midnight Cowboy — It’s weird that this is the only “70s” film on this list. They really did try to keep these films out of the race after 1967. Hell, even in 1967 they didn’t really vote for a progressive film. They voted for a sugar-coated (relatively) version of one. And 1968 they didn’t really nominate any of those “newer” films. So they really needed to get one in. It was something that needed to happen. And it says a lot that this film, despite everything against it (it was rated X at the time. This film winning would be like Shame having been nominated and won in 2011), managed to beat out all these other nominees.

The film is about Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a Texan who dreams of bigger things, specifically moving to New York and becoming a gigolo. (We also find out via flashback that he and his girlfriend were once gang-raped by some people, which may have led to this decision.) So he goes to New York, and very quickly loses all his money in a scam. And when he tries to sell his services to a woman, he finds out she thought he just wanted to sleep with her and ends up having to pay her money just to calm her down. And then he ends up penniless on the streets, eventually meeting Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a small-time conman (who earlier conned him out of $20), who agrees to show him the ropes. And they live together and become friends, and we watch Buck go about trying to be a gigolo and also helping Rizzo with his dream of going to Miami. And the film famously ends with the two of them on a bus and Rizzo dying right when they get there.

It’s a really great film. It’s so gritty and raw. The perfect film to win this year. Of course, it’s not my favorite in the bunch (because Butch and Sundance is one of my favorite films of all time and I just really, really like Anne of the Thousand Days), but it would be my second choice. And in terms of history, it was probably the best choice.

Z — This is the second foreign language film ever nominated for Best Picture. The first was Grand Illusion. That was in 1938. This is the second.

The film is a procedural and a political thriller, about an assassination. We open with a speech by a member of the government, who is ultra-right wing and military. Then we see a left-wing guy give a speech in the streets (which is clear is not an easy thing to do, with the military trying to crack down on free speech and leftists). After his speech, he is killed. And then we follow investigators as they look into the death, finding it was not an accident as was initially assumed. They start uncovering evidence that implicates two high right-wing members in the killing. And the great thing about the film is that it ends with, seemingly, justice having been served. But then we find out that the prosecutor of the trial was killed, witnesses refused to testify or were killed, and the defendants ended up getting ridiculously low sentences. Not to mention the fact that the investigators were thrown in prison on bullshit charges.

It’s a great film for several reasons. First off — it’s very 60s. The editing in this film is amazing. It has that raw 60s feel to it. That Easy Rider feel. Also, I like how pessimistic it is. How there’s no “Hollywood” ending. It’s the kind of film that makes the audience angry and makes them want to do something about it. That’s the essence of a political film. So it’s a terrific film. However I couldn’t vote for it. I love Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid too much, plus — call it whatever you like, but given how few foreign films are nominated for Best Picture, I just prefer voting for American films. Of course, I will vote for a foreign film should the situation call for it (see: Grand Illusion), but here — there are at least two great American choices this year, and I’ll always lean toward those. (I don’t really think of that as a bad thing, since, after all, BAFTA does the same thing with British films.)

My Thoughts: It’s a really strong category. With, of course, the requisite big-budget musical holdover. Midnight Cowboy is the film that should probably win, especially given the time period. But I can’t not vote for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I love the film too much. So I have to vote for that. But as long as that or Midnight Cowboy won, it’s all good with me.

My Vote: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Should Have Won: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Midnight Cowboy

Is the result acceptable?: Oh hell yeah. I just picked a personal preference. This was a great decision.

Ones I suggest you watch: If you haven’t seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, you’re dead to me.

If you haven’t seen Midnight Cowboy, you don’t really love movies.

Anne of the Thousand Days is really amazing. Probably my favorite costume drama of the era. It’s terrific. Near essential, if you ask me.

Hello, Dolly! is a lot of fun. Not the best 60s musical, but good. Worth a watch.

Z is also a really solid film. Definitely a film you should check out. It’s one of those that has enough widespread appeal that you can see it and feel like you’re knowledgable about foreign films.


5) Z

4) Hello, Dolly!

3) Anne of the Thousand Days

2) Midnight Cowboy

1) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

One response

  1. Jacob

    Those aren’t the reasons that Doctor Doolittle was nominated for Best Picture. It’s pretty well-known that it was nominated due to a HUGE marketing push from Fox, who hadn’t been out of the Best Picture race since 1958, and they weren’t about to give up just because their only film in the race was a giant turkey.

    May 23, 2012 at 2:42 pm

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