1963: the year John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the Beatles released their first LP, and Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp were born. In my seventh annual look at the Best Picture nominees from fifty years ago, we once again find that bigger is rewarded–three of the five nominees were over two and a half hours long, with one of them at a butt-numbing four hours. Still battling with television, Hollywood was using the “road show” strategy to get patrons, with prestigious movies traveling around the country as if they were stage shows, often with reserved seating. Technically, 3D was dead, but Cinerama was still around, with one of the nominees the first narrative film to be released in that format.
America America was Elia Kazan’s reconstruction of the early life of an uncle of his, the first to leave Europe for the U.S.A. It’s a journey film, as the young man makes his way from Anatolia to Constantinople, and then on to America. The film depicts the way the Turks dealt harshly with the ethnic Greeks and Armenians, and the way that the young and oppressed of Europe saw America as an escape into freedom. It’s a long film, three hours, but a very good one, only marred by the wooden performance of Stathis Giallelis in the lead.
The biggest film of the year, in more ways than one, was Cleopatra, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz and with a cast of thousands, none more prominent than Elizabeth Taylor as the last queen of Egypt and Richard Burton as Mark Antony. The film is today thought of as a flop, but it was the highest grossing film of the year, and eventually broke even. The official running time is about four hours, though it has been released in various lengths. I saw the whole thing, and it’s not terrible, though it is frequently campy. The film cost $44 million to make, $335 million in today’s money. At least the money is on screen–Taylor makes 65 costume changes. The love affair that blossomed between the two made headlines and actually helped the film. Rex Harrison, as Julius Caesar, makes the first half of the movie–he got an Oscar nomination.
Cinerama was a technique in which three cameras projected onto a curved screen. It was mostly used for travelogues, but in 1963 How the West Was Won, based on a series of Life magazine articles, became the first film to use the technique that told a story. Directed by three men, including John Ford and Henry Hathaway, it sought to tell how white men “won” the west, defeating “nature and primitive man.” It basically follows the historical precept of Frederick Jackson Turner, who posited in the 1930s that the conquering of the West was brave and noble white people turning a wild land into a tame one, but current scholarship is much different.
In any event, the film is a dud. It has stars galore–it’s the only film that features John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and James Stewart (though they share no scenes), with Gregory Peck in there for good measure. It covers one family as they emigrate from New England to Ohio to Missouri to California, with scenes covering the Civil War, the transcontinental railroad, and wagon trains. The highlights are the action scenes, which must have looked thrilling in Cinerama–a buffalo stampede and a gunfight aboard a train are standouts. But the script is incredibly leaden. The major crime of the Oscars that year was that it won Best Original Screenplay, beating out Fellini’s 8 1/2.
The only one of the nominees to be under two hours, Lilies of the Field is best known today for Sidney Poitier’s performance, the first black man to win a Best Actor Oscar. It’s a fairly dated picture, the kind of thing that today would make a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie. Poitier stars as an itinerant worker who is driving across the desert when his car overheats. He stops at a house where a bunch of German nuns live. They give him water, and he fixes their roof. The head nun then manipulates him into building them a chapel.
1963 was a major year for racial issues–it was the year of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but this film doesn’t address it head on. Poitier’s character is called Homer Smith, both an allusion to the Odyssey and a basic, all-American surname. Only one scene deals with it, when a white man calls Poitier “boy,” and Poitier calls him “boy” right back, a prefiguring of the famous scene four years later when he slaps a white man in In the Heat of the Night.
The winner of the 1963 Best Picture Oscar was Tom Jones. It had the distinction, until recently, of being the only Best Picture I hadn’t seen. I must say that I was underwhelmed by it, and that it’s the oddest duck of the 82 films to win that award. It’s basically a sex comedy with a British sense of humor that is recognizable in Benny Hill or Monty Python.
Based on the classic novel by Henry Fielding, Tom Jones is a picaresque tale about a foundling raised as a gentleman, but with a habit of getting in trouble with his knickers down. It was directed by Tony Richardson and written by “angry young man” playwright John Osborne, both of whom won Oscars. It has a wink-at-the camera style, with characters frequently breaking the fourth wall. There’s lot of heaving bosoms and ripped bodices, and the most famous scene involves Albert Finney, as Tom, having dinner with Joyce Redman. They eat and flirt at the same time, which horrified some blue noses, no doubt because of the way Redman licked her drumstick or Finney slurped his oysters. In fact, it was interesting reading about some of the contemporary responses by reactionaries like Hedda Hopper, who hated it because it was “bawdy” or because it was British. In those days, there was a jingoistic attitude that columnists adopted, saying Oscars shouldn’t go to foreigners.
It’s a pretty lackluster quintet. If I had to vote, I suppose I would have chosen Tom Jones also. There were better films released that year, such as Hud, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Birds, and 8 1/2, which is hands down the best film of that year. Hopper found it “beneath contempt.”