It’s time for my annual look back 50 years at the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. For the year 1962, I noted something interesting: All five films nominated were also among the top ten earners in box office. I haven’t checked, but I doubt that happens often; it would be unthinkable today, as there is a clear delineation between art and commerce, with the two rarely coinciding. Of course, this doesn’t mean that audiences were much more sophisticated in those days. Films that did good box office were often nominated for Best Picture, even if no one liked them, as there was great studio loyalty.
Also, the films nominated were very long–all over two hours, four of them over two and a half, and one over four. Two of them had intermissions and overtures, a rarity today. The last film I saw in a theater that had an intermission was Gettysburg, and I can’t remember the last one with an overture.
I start with with The Longest Day, an almost-three hour film about D-Day. Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, it was too much for one director–it had three, not including an uncredited Zanuck. Starring a cast of thousands, with cameos by some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, London, and Berlin, including John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, and Richard Burton, the film is a clear-eyed, unsentimental chronicle of one of the most pivotal days in world history. It starts the night before the invasion, when bad weather almost cancelled it, and then proceeds throughout the pre-dawn paratrooper jump, then the landing, and the fighting for every inch of the beach. There is a lot of time devoted to the arrogance and stupidity of the Germans, who refused to believe what was going on. As many history buffs know, Hitler was not awakened because he took a sleeping pill. “We will lose the war because the Fuehrer took a sedative,” one German officer moans.
What’s very impressive is the scale of the production. There are no CGI soldiers on the beach–167 actors were hired, and over 450 military extras were used. The actual fighting isn’t as bloody as Saving Private Ryan, this was 1962 after all, but it’s still intense.
Not so intense is The Music Man, a bloated adaptation of the Broadway hit. Directed by Martin Dacosta, the film starts Robert Preston as a con man in Iowa in 1912. His scam is to sell musical instruments for a band to gullible parents, but since the instruments are actually delivered I’m not sure what the profit margin is. Of course he falls in love with town librarian Shirley Jones. There are several familiar songs like “76 Trombones,” “Till There Was You,” and “(Ya Got) Trouble,” and the film uses candy colors that it is almost surreal. But I was bored out of my skull. This is a movie for grandmas. Notable in the cast is young Ronny Howard, who plays a kid with a lisp who sings the song “Gary, Indiana.” The Simpson’s episode, “Marge vs. the Monorail,” is a better spin on the same idea.
Mutiny on the Bounty, one of the few remakes to be nominated for Best Picture (The Departed is the only one that has won) is also bloated, and has a performance by Marlon Brando that has to be seen to be believed. It was a critical failure, but did crack the top ten for the year in tickets sold. The film emphasizes the mutineers love of Tahiti, which is where much of it was filmed, and where Brando met his third wife, Tanita, who is his love interest in the film. The film also emphasizes Bligh’s cruelty as stemming from his interest in getting the shipment of breadfruit to Jamaica, but historical accuracy ends with Brando’s death scene–Fletcher Christian didn’t actually die until four years after the mutineers settled on Pitcairn Island. Directed by Lewis Milestone (after Brando forced Carol Reed to quit), there are some well-done scenes on the high seas, but mostly this is a dud.
Though it didn’t win, I think To Kill a Mockingbird is the most beloved film to come out of 1962. One of the best movies ever made from a good book, the film managed to capture what has made the novel the book that is second only to The Bible as the one that has inspired more people (based on a poll). Gregory Peck stars as Atticus Finch, a lawyer in a sleepy Alabama town in the 1930s. His daughter Scout narrates as an older daughter, remembering the period where her father defended a black man falsely charged with rape.
The film works on several levels. It is an idyllic look at the innocence of childhood, soiled by the evils of racism, but it is also a celebration of humanity, with the use of the character Boo Radley (played silently by Robert Duvall, in one of his first roles). When Scout says “Hey, Boo,” at the end of the picture, it would take a hard-hearted person not to feel a rush of emotion.
Gregory Peck won the Oscar, and deservedly so, but in doing so he beat out newcomer Peter O’Toole, who was brilliant in the Oscar winner, Lawrence of Arabia. I’m sure voters figured they’d have plenty of time to honor him, and fifty years later he has been nominated seven times with no wins. At least he won an honorary Oscar.
Directed by David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia was an easy choice for Best Picture, as it is a masterpiece and won of the great achievements in cinema history. It couldn’t be made the same way today–it would have to be done with CGI, as it would be too expensive (water had to be trucked at $3 a gallon, and think of all the sand that had to be smoothed out after each take). The story of British officer T.E. Lawrence and his command of Arabs against the Turks during World War I, the movie is four hours long but goes by in a flash. It’s desert vistas are breathtaking, but it also works on a small scale–the character of Lawrence, as he goes from an eccentric to a self-appointed prophet.
The film also has one of the great edits of all time: when Lawrence blows out a match, and we cut instantly to the burning desert. Speaking of matches, one of the greatest lines from the film is when, after Lawrence puts out a match with his fingers, a colleague tries it and burns himself. “That hurts!” the man exclaims. “Of course it does,” Lawrence tells him. “The trick…is not minding that it hurts.” Of course, that and several other scenes in the film have us wondering whether Lawrence is as sadomasochist.