It’s time for my annual look back at the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar fifty years ago, which takes me back to 1960, when Kennedy and Nixon were running against each other, Eisenhower warned us about the military-industrial complex, and Don Draper came up with calling the Kodak slide wheel a “carousel.”
The films from 1960 that have the most lasting legacy are Psycho and Breathless. Neither were nominated for Best Picture, although Psycho did get some nominations, including Alfred Hitchcock for Best Director and Janet Leigh for Best Supporting Actress. Though Hitchcock was the most famous working director at the time, it can be understood that his experiment in making a B-picture, especially one about a murderous transvestite, didn’t get top laurels. Breathless, a debut picture from a French New Wave director, broke many of the rules of filmmaking, so that it was left out is not surprising in the least.
Where we can fault the Academy is nominating John Wayne’s bloated vanity production, The Alamo. Wayne had it in his head that the doomed stand of Texans trying to hold off an assault by Mexican troops in 1836 was representative of American courage and freedom. Of course nowhere in the film is it mentioned that one of the reasons Texans wanted independence was because the Mexican government had outlawed slavery. Ah, the strange way early Americans espoused freedom while holding other people in involuntary servitude!
Wayne directed, though he had a hard time raising the money, as studios wanted someone like John Ford to direct. So we get a very long film (the DVD is 162 minutes, which is the short version) of a typical John Wayne film (he plays Davy Crockett as if he were just another Wayne cowboy). The battle itself doesn’t come until the last half hour of the film. There is almost nothing about the film that is historically accurate.
A much more interesting film is Elmer Gantry, directed by Richard Brooks and adapted from the 1927 novel by Sinclair Lewis. Brooks’ script gives Gantry much more shading than the book, where he is an outright villain. In the film, Gantry (played effervescently by Burt Lancaster in an Oscar-winning role) is an appliance salesman who becomes fascinated by an tent-revival evangelist, Jean Simmons. He is a master con man, and gets close to her, and the pair become a team, with Gantry whipping up the crowd during meetings. But his performance is full of ambiguity, as we’re never quite sure he believes what he says. We do think his love for Simmons is real, but it remains an intriguing mystery.
Lewis’ novel was condemned in its day for its portrayal of religion as just another commodity to be sold, but by 1960 that wasn’t so controversial any more, and the film softens its attack. Shirley Jones also won an Oscar, shattering her image as a wholesome star of musicals like Oklahoma! and Carousel by playing a hard-as-nails prostitute.
Sons and Lovers was also based on a classic novel, this time one by D.H. Lawrence, set in England right before World War I. The film, directed by Jack Cardiff, only covers the last half of the book, which is about Paul Martel (Dean Stockwell), an artistic young man growing up in the coal country of the Midlands. His father, Trevor Howard, is a mean drunk, and his mother, Wendy Hiller, holds the apron strings a little too tightly.
As one would imagine with a work by Lawrence, the film deals frankly with sexuality. Paul is friendly with a young girl from the village, but she has been so brainwashed by her mother’s religious fervor that she views love as spiritual only, not physical. So Paul finds his way into the bed of a married woman, Mary Ure, but she recognizes that Paul will never break free of his mother’s control. It’s a very good character study, and Freddie Francis’ black and white cinematography won the Oscar.
The Sundowners, directed by Fred Zinneman, is an old-fashioned (and corny) family adventure set in Australia during the 1920s. Robert Mitchum plays a drover who is constantly on the move, looking for his next job, not wanting to settle down. But his wife (marvelously played by Deborah Kerr) and son want to put down roots and have a permanent home. They have a series of adventures: battling a brush fire, taking jobs sheep-shearing at a ranch, and then owning a race horse. They are joined by Peter Ustinov as a sardonic Englishman. It’s all very unobjectionable but not very intriguing. Mitchum’s Aussie accent comes and goes.
The very deserving winner was Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, the only one of this quintet that deserves classic status. Mislabeled as a comedy (one of the working titles was Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed?–thank goodness it was changed), The Apartment is a searing study of urban alienation. It’s opening scenes recall another film, The Crowd, which is about the same subject.
Jack Lemmon stars as an anonymous cog in a big insurance company. He’s been currying favor by letting middle managers use his bachelor apartment for their extramarital trysts. When the big boss, Fred MacMurray (in an inspired choice of casting) finds out, he demands that Lemmon let him on the fun, too. The catch–his mistress is elevator-operator Shirley MacLaine, whom Lemmon is in love with.
Not everyone liked this film when it came out. Many critics were put off by the open discussion of adultery, and one said that Wilder had “grown a rose in a garbage pail.”
Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s script is so rich, and the cinematography by Joseph LaShelle is lit as if for a noir film. Every time I watch it I can’t help but feel a little heart-throb for MacLaine, as she plays the kind of character I would be over the moon for. The closing scene, when Lemmon tells her he loves her while shuffling a deck of cards, is almost as great an ending as Wilder’s film from the year before, Some Like It Hot.
Full reviews of these films, plus some others from 1960, are on my blog, Go-Go-Rama.