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The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1967

This is the year everything changed. After a decade of the crumbling of the studio system, studios not knowing how to handle the changing times, the failures of this big-budget roadshow musicals, the rampant runaway production going on — something snapped. For a few years, these smaller, grittier, counter-culture films were starting to pop up. But this year is where one of them finally broke through into the mainstream: Bonnie and Clyde. Not to mention, you see a huge influx of socially conscious films among the nominees this year. Dealing with race and violence and sex — topics that were completely taboo less than a decade earlier. 1967 is the most socially important year in the history of cinema. No other year holds a candle to it in terms of social importance.

The year is also wonderfully spread out. They managed to get every major film an award. In the Heat of the Night wins Best Picture and Best Actor for Rod Steiger (talked about here). Steiger was pretty due by this point, so that was nice (even though I’d say Spencer Tracy and Paul Newman gave better performances. Not to mention an un-nominated and horribly snubbed Sidney Poitier). Best Actress was Katharine Hepburn for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (talked about here), a solid choice. Best Supporting Actor was George Kennedy for Cool Hand Luke (talked about here), which is so awesome I don’t even want to talk about it lest I somehow jinx it 45 years after the fact. Best Supporting Actress was Estelle Parsons for Bonnie and Clyde (talked about here), which — wow. If you’ve seen the performance, you know. And Best Director was Mike Nichols for The Graduate (talked about here), which he deserved, between this and not winning for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the year before this. So, overall, they did a great job of awarding all the great films from the year.

However — and I’ve said this a lot — I can’t help but feel this Best Picture decision is a cop out decision.

BEST PICTURE – 1967

And the nominees were…

Bonnie and Clyde (Warner Bros., Seven Arts)

Doctor Dolittle (20th Century Fox)

The Graduate (Embassy)

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Columbia)

In the Heat of the Night (United Artists)

Bonnie and Clyde — This is a film about Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. They robbed banks.

I’m not going to give you a synopsis here (which I’m really not going to give you for most of the films in this category). You need to see this film. It’s an absolute landmark of cinema, and is perfect.

Doctor Dolittle — It’s a musical about a doctor who can talk to animals. Starring Rex Harrison and his unique style of singing.

There’s really not so much of a plot here. It’s kind of Miracle on 34th Street, in that — he’s put on trial and has to prove that he can talk to animals. Simple film. Fun, but long and overindulgent. It’s the red-headed stepchild of this category. It’s only here because the reactionary group of the Academy wanted something from the good old days (or because people voted for the studio because they had intended to be here and they lost a lot of money, so it was a consolation vote). Either way — we pretty much ignore the fact that this is even here. This winning would have been possibly the worst Best Picture decision of all time if it happened.

The Graduate — It’s The Graduate. Dustin Hoffman — “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me” — sleeping with his girlfriend’s mother. Another landmark piece of cinema. A perfect film. One you need to have seen.

So right now we have two landmark pieces of cinema. Amazing. How do you vote?

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner — And here’s our third landmark piece of cinema. Bonnie and Clyde was about violence, The Graduate was about sex and the generation gap, and this is about civil rights. It’s about a white daughter coming home to tell her parents she’s going to get married to a black man. And the film is about the parents processing this and deciding whether or not to give their blessing (since Poitier, the man) says he won’t go through with the marriage if the parents (Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy) won’t approve. And they find their liberal sensibilities tested by this. It’s a perfect film. My favorite of the bunch, but that’s not saying much (or maybe it’s saying a lot. Right. It’s saying a lot. My logic is all out of whack, and I’d rather talk my way out of it than go back and actually delete something), considering the company.

In the Heat of the Night — And our final nominee. This certainly went quicker than I expected.

This film is about a murder in a small town in the south. Rod Steiger is the sheriff. And he finds, sitting at a train station, Sidney Poitier (MISTER Tibbs). And this being the south, he is immediately suspicious of a black man. So he brings him in, and then finds that he’s a very respected detective up in Philadelphia. And Poitier’s forced by his chief to help solve the murder case. So the film is about the racist white sheriff and the black man who despises southerners (because of their racism, and because of some bias he also holds) having to work together to solve a murder. It’s a great film. Another classic of cinema. Pretty much every film on this list with the exception of Doctor Dolittle is a film you need to have seen. Ones where — if you need a synopsis to know what they’re about, you don’t really love movies.

Personally, this is my fourth favorite of the four possibilities, and is the one I think shouldn’t have won. But honestly, in that company, it doesn’t really matter. It’s about the year, more than any one film. So honestly, as long as Dolittle didn’t win, it’s all good.

My Thoughts: I said I feel as though this decision is a cop out decision. Let me explain why:

First — we can all agree that Doctor Dolittle had no shot here, right? Okay. Just getting that out of the way.

First we have Bonnie and Clyde. Possibly the best film in the category, but it’s very clear this film was too raw, too violent, too gritty — too much for the Academy to handle all at once. Four years after this — sure. But here, there was no way they were gonna vote for this. So I can accept it losing. Landmark films often don’t get their due until enough time has passed.

So that really leaves us with three choices. One is The Graduate. They gave it Best Director, and I don’t understand why they didn’t follow through and just give it Best Picture too. Then again, it’s about a generational gap and the inability for the younger and older generations to understand one another. I’m not sure if that’s the best topic for a Best Picture winner this year. Sure, it’s an amazing film, but maybe they just didn’t want to vote for it. Okay, fine. (Also, doesn’t it not winning prove its point?)

That leaves In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Let’s say they wanted to vote for race. It’s right in the middle of the Civil Rights era, race is not really something that’s penetrated the Oscars on this big a level before (the closest I think they came was A Patch of Blue, which really only got the acting nominations. The Defiant Ones also doesn’t really talk about race as openly as the films of this decade do. So I don’t really count that. Though it’s hard to compare — different decades). So let’s say they want to go with race. Now — Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is very open about itself. A white woman wants to mary a black man, and both sets of parents have major reservations. There you have race, the generational gap, and a social commentary. The total package. It’s also an amazing film. Stagy, yes, but so is In the Heat of the Night. Meanwhile, In the Heat of the Night — it feels like Racism Lite. Sure, it has a story about whites coming to terms with blacks and all — but it’s a soft one. They couch it around a murder mystery. It doesn’t have the impact (or openness) Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner has in terms of dealing with race. And it certainly doesn’t have the impact Bonnie and Clyde has. So I feel the choice is a cop out — them choosing the most palatable version of social change that they could (since it was abundantly clear they had to choose one).

On that note, however — it does actually kind of make In the Heat of the Night the best (in a way) choice here. Because it does fit perfectly with the Academy’s aversion to change. When they do go for change, they do it in the way that’s most comfortable to them and the most reminiscent of the classical stuff they like best. So that does make In the Heat of the Night a good choice from, I guess, a historical perspective (as in, someone analyzing this in a more anthropological sense), but in terms of the category — it’s third best at most. There were at least three better choices here. (I also feel most people would admit to two choices being better.)

I, personally, am going with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, simply because it’s my favorite film on this list, and because it’s the closest to the actual winner, only better. Though I will say, Bonnie and Clyde was a really close second.

My Vote: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Should Have Won: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate

Is the result acceptable?: Yes. Because ultimately, all four of those films are really good films, and in the anthropological sense, it was the most fitting choice. In terms of what it beat — not really. But since all the films did win awards, it is acceptable.

Ones I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Bonnie and Clyde or The Graduate — or hell, also In the Heat of the Night — you’re dead to me, you don’t really love movies, what the hell is wrong with you, and we’re not friends.

And Doctor Dolittle is a fun movie. Definitely an example of Hollywood spending to excess in the 60s — it’s overly long, unwieldy, and not nearly as good as some of the other 60s musicals, but it is a fun movie, and definitely worth checking out.

Rankings:

5) Doctor Dolittle

4) In the Heat of the Night

3) Bonnie and Clyde

2) The Graduate

1) Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

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