The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1965
1965 is a playing card year. I mean that in the sense of — there’s a scene in My Cousin Vinny where Pesci explains that the prosecution’s case looks like a brick, and will be presented as such, but in reality, is as thin as a playing card, because the fact remains that the boys are innocent. And that’s what I feel about this year. On the surface, a good year and a good choice. But, when you look at it more closely — it might not be what it appears.
The Sound of Music, outside of Best Picture, wins Best Director for Robert Wise (talked about here). That’s standard operating procedure. Best Actor was Lee Marvin for Cat Ballou (talked about here), which I think is a terrible decision, yet I can’t be too angry with it because I love Lee Marvin. Still, bad decision. Best Actress was Julie Christie for Darling (talked about here), which was such a great decision. Between that and Doctor Zhivago — man did she deserve that. Best Supporting Actor was Martin Balsam for A Thousand Clowns (talked about here), which — one of the worst Best Supporting Actor categories of all time, so — sure. And Best Supporting Actress was Shelley Winters for A Patch of Blue (talked about here), which she totally deserved. And the film is amazing too. Great decision.
So, fine year, fine decisions, for the most part. This is a year I don’t think is quite that good a decision. And on the other side of the coin, I’m not quite sure what beats it. This is a really interesting year to talk about, and one that I don’t think is as simple as you’d think it is.
And the nominees were…
Doctor Zhivago (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Ship of Fools (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
The Sound of Music (20th Century Fox)
A Thousand Clowns (United Artists)
Darling — Here’s a film that’s nearly impossible to explain via plot, but I’ll do my best.
Julie Christie plays a woman who basically sleeps her way to the top. However, she does it without really knowing what her end goal is. Basically, she’s married and bored, and then meets a TV writer and starts an affair. And they both leave their spouses. And then she starts doing some acting and modeling. This then introduces her to an executive, whom she starts sleeping with. And then she leaves him because she dislikes how shallow that world is, and ends up with a prince, who gives her everything she could want, except love. So as she moves up the ladder of success (man-wise), she gets increasingly unhappy, since each successive man is even more unfulfilling. It’s a terrific film (and has a bit of a Grace Kelly comparison to it), and Julie Christie is amazing here. I’m serious. She’s so good. She deserved that Best Actress Oscar two-fold.
As for this category — I think it was probably not good enough to win on its own. But next to the other films here — why not? I think of it like this — this film is just below that “win” quality, whereas Doctor Zhivago is about two steps above it (just a bit overdone), and The Sound of Music is about two steps west of center off the axis. Nothing here really is in that sweet spot, which really makes it all fair game. I think this film is definitely in contention.
Doctor Zhivago — I refer to the David Lean films, post-1957 using the analogy of a projectile. Generally, projectiles, you throw them up in the air, they reach their highest point, and then they come back down. That’s how David Lean’s films went. The Bridge on the River Kwai is him on the upswing, aiming for the top, almost there. That film is nearly perfect, but not entirely there. Then Lawrence of Arabia is him at his absolute highest. That is perfection. And then Doctor Zhivago — it’s just past that perfection point, on the way down. It’s like The Bridge on the River Kwai in that — it’s not perfect (merely very, very good), is close to perfect, but unlike Bridge on the River Kwai, this one just feels like too much. Like (and I’m about to completely switch metaphors here) a batter trying to hit a home run. Bridge on the River Kwai is the one that almost clears the fence but is caught right at the warning track. And you go, “Oh, wow, great hit. Too bad he caught it.” And this film (assuming Lawrence of Arabia is the home run) is the batter forcing it too much and him hitting a no doubt fly out. He just got too much of it. And then after this were the two pop ups (where he really got too much of it), in Ryan’s Daughter and A Passage to India.
Anyway, the film is about Yuri Zhivago and Lara. Zhivago is played by Omar Sharif and Lara is played by Julie Christie (who had a hell of a year in 1965). Zhivago is a poet and a doctor. And we follow them over ten years around the time of the Russian Revolution. At first Lara is engaged to Tom Courtenay, who is an idealistic man who becomes a radical, and then has an affair with Rod Steiger, a corrupt lawyer. Then Steiger rapes her and she shoots him (but doesn’t kill him). She then marries Courtenay. And then World War I breaks out and Courtenay goes missing and is presumed dead. Then Lara runs into Zhivago again and they start up a hospital for wounded soldiers, but are parted at the end of the war. And the film is about them meeting briefly here and there and being separated. The kind of thing where — if they were able to spend time together, it’s clear they’d fall in love. And eventually they do meet up again and begin an affair, but by that point the communists are in charge and things are dangerous, since Zhivago’s poetry is considered anti-communist (not to mention the fact that they’re both still married, as Courtenay resurfaces as a communist leader). And eventually they have to part again, since both their lives are in danger. And Zhivago starts writing poems to her, and eventually dies. It’s a really long movie, but a great one.
Again, though, this is a film that’s a bit too on-the-nose to win this category, I feel. It’s just not there. I don’t know how best to explain it. I’m sure people would prefer this to The Sound of Music, which I’d agree with. I think this is the better film. It’s just that neither really feels like the right film to me. So I don’t know. I think your vote is still open and dependent on personal preference. It’s a weird year. They all feel not quite worth a definite vote, and yet are almost all worth one in this category. See what I mean about seeming simple on the surface and then actually not being so?
Ship of Fools — Yeesh. This is one of the weaker Best Picture nominees of all time. It’s a film that makes sense, and has all the earmarks of a nominee, but really — is just flat. The whole thing is so very flat.
The film is an ensemble about a bunch of people on a ship from Mexico to Germany in the 30s. It’s sort of about the rise of fascism in Germany, but mostly we follow the characters. Like, there’s the ship’s doctor (Oskar Werner), who falls in love with Simone Signoret, a countess who is a drug addict and convinced of her doom. Then there’s an anti-Semitic German doctor on the ship, and a Jew and a dwarf, who become friends because everyone else on board pretty much hates them. Then there’s the requisite American couple. It hits all the notes of an ensemble. The only really interesting part for me is Vivien Leigh’s part. What I love about all her movies is that every single one of them is a perfect snapshot of what she was going through in her life at that time. Here, she plays a divorcée who is now getting older and drinks and flirts with men, looking to recapture her youth.
The film itself is long and mostly boring. I found really only one of the stories remotely interesting and that’s really only because of Vivien Leigh. Other than her, the film is like watching one of those boring films you know will be nominated for a bunch of Oscars. It’s one of the weakest nominees of the decade. It’s the film here nobody would vote for.
The Sound of Music — This is actually a really simple film. There are four kinds of musicals: the full package, with the great stories and the great songs. Like My Fair Lady. Then there are the ones with great stories but not very memorable songs, like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Then there are ones with amazing songs but flimsy stories, like this one. And then there are the ones that are just bad all around. This film really isn’t particularly good. (Just ask Christopher Plummer, who calls the film “The Sound of Mucus.”) If the songs weren’t so damn great, and the musical numbers so memorable, this would be a big failure of the 60s. It’s weird to have a film that’s both great and terrible at the same time like that.
The film is about Julie Andrews, as Maria (who is a problem which they need to find out how to solve), a nun who is clearly not cut out for the convent. So they send her away to go be a governess to Captain von Trapp and his children. And she goes there and basically becomes a mother to the children. She falls in love with them while von Trapp is harsh and doesn’t really show them affection. Then Maria and the captain fall in love. Then the Nazis take over and they have to escape. There’s really not much of a story here. Yet, the title song, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?”, “I Have Confidence,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “My Favorite Things,” “Edelweiss,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” — there are way too many famous songs in this musical. That’s why this film is so good. The rest is just schmaltz.
It is a good film, and I understand why it won. Actually, it was the best film to win here, simply because this film, above all others, best represents (in the perfect year, too. Midway through the decade) what the 60s were like. Hollywood retreated to musicals like this — big, roadshow, lots of money — to stay afloat. This film was the 60s before Bonnie and Clyde. So in that sense, it’s great that this won. I can’t vote for it, though (even though I almost did), because, outside of the songs, I really don’t think this is a very good movie. Well, it’s great, and I do like it, but — I can’t vote for it. I just can’t. I’d lose respect for myself if I did.
A Thousand Clowns — I love this film. I knew nothing about it going in, and I was hooked real fast when I put it on.
It’s about Jason Robards, a former writer for a kids show who is now out of work (after walking out on his job). So he takes his young nephew every morning to watch all the people going to work (it’s New York City) and saying how they’re all idiots for going to work. He says they’re suckers. And the kid is really his only friend, and it’s the kind of thing where — he brings the kid around with him because he gets to make these speeches about his world view, and the kid looks up to him. The kid is an apprentice basically. But when the kid writes an essay for school that echoes these sentiments, the school sends social workers to their apartment. And the rest of the film is basically about him trying to keep the kid. And the dilemma he faces is — either he keeps the kid and goes back to work, or he loses the kid and remains unemployed. So he struggles with this over the course of the film. And all he really wants is for the kid to show some backbone. Once he sees that the kid has some guts, then he’ll be able to go back to work. And what happens is, his former boss comes over to the apartment and starts berating him. And he sits there and takes it. And the kid stands up to the dude, which convinces Robards to suck it up and go back to work.
It might not sound like much, but it’s a great movie. It’s based on a play, which shows. The strength of this film is the writing. The dialogue here is amazing. This is one of the real hidden gems on this Quest. A very underrated film that is criminally underseen nowadays. However — it shouldn’t have won Best Picture. It’s stagy, it’s not particularly of any substance (since I do believe that a Best Picture winner should have some substance, either in terms of its story and execution or in terms of historical significance. This one just wouldn’t hold up as a winner. And as much as I love it, it’s actually lucky to be here.
My Thoughts: Tough call. Ship of Fools is out. Don’t like the film, don’t think it should even be nominated here. Then — A Thousand Clowns — I love it, but I can’t vote for it. It’ll cause too many problems. So I can’t vote for it, even though I love the film. Then — Doctor Zhivago — I think it causes too many problems. It’s a great film, but it’s just a bit too on-the-nose. It’s almost 200 minutes, and I think it drags for at least 30 of those minutes, and I just think it probably shouldn’t have won. I’d accept Sound of Music over it. Though, I really don’t think The Sound of Music is an easy winner. It’s light and likable, but of what substance is it really? Then again, I guess you can say that about a lot of musicals. So I guess it’s fine. But I really liked Darling. I’m gonna vote for that. It’s very 60s, and just more interesting than the rest. The rest seem like classical filmmaking, and this just feels new. So I’m gonna vote for Darling. But really, my goal here is to say that this year is not actually the easy, “pass over” year most people consider it to be. (Note: I use “pass over year” to describe those years like 1939 with Gone With the Wind, or 1959 with Ben-Hur, where you see what won Best Picture and go, “Oh, yeah,” and move on, because it so obviously is a film that would win, and we don’t question it. Of course, some years are passover years based solely on the winner. This is one of those. When you see the nominees, this isn’t exactly as much of a “Oh, yeah” as it might be if you just saw the film’s name. Still, I think most people accent this as a Best Picture winner without thinking about it.)
My Vote: Darling
Should Have Won: I don’t know, really. I can’t call this one. Not Ship of Fools. Otherwise, I guess the rest are fair game, each with their own upsides and downsides.
Is the result acceptable?: I guess yes. Maybe it’s just that I’m so large scale movie-d out that I’m looking for something else to give it to here. But even though The Sound of Music is kind of campy and over-the-top, it is an entertaining film. And Dr. Zhivago is a bit too boring on the whole to give it to. So, I guess yes. I don’t really see what other way they could have gone.
Ones I suggest you see: The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago are essential. Don’t be a schmuck.
Darling is essential for me. I will make you see this movie if you care about film.
A Thousand Clowns is a film I will show you if you are my friend. It’s a hidden gem, and it’s one I love showing to people. So, see it. I don’t throw the word hidden gem around lightly on this blog.
Honestly, Ship of Fools has almost zero appeal for me whatsoever. It’s long, pointless (for me), and the only part I watch it for is Vivien Leigh. Otherwise, I can’t recommend this film for any purpose.
5) Ship of Fools
4) The Sound of Music
3) Dr. Zhivago
2) A Thousand Clowns