It’s time for my annual look back 50 years at the nominees for the Best Picture Oscar. This time it’s 1964, the year the Civil Rights bill was passed, Pop-Tarts and Lucky Charms debuted on the supermarket shelves, and Keanu Reeves and Nicolas Cage were born. At the Oscars it was anglophilia, as all five of the nominees had a British connection. Three were set in England, another had a British leading actor, and the fifth, though thoroughly American in theme, was filmed in England by an American expatriate director. The four acting awards went to non-Americans, (three Brits, one Russian) which wouldn’t happen again until 2007.
I’ll start with Becket, starring the great actors Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole as Thomas Becket and King Henry II of England, in a wonderful behind-the-throne tale of friendship and honor. O’Toole would later play Henry again in 1968’s Lion in Winter, and he would play him the same way, as an obnoxious but charming man who had a gift for gab, and for hurling insults at his Queen. Directed by Peter Glenville, Becket is full of pageantry, but also focuses on the small and intimate. Burton and O’Toole’s scene near the end of the film, their last meeting, on horseback on the beach, is brilliant acting and writing.
My vote would have gone to Dr. Strangelove, one of the great comedies of all time, and in my top ten movies list. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, it’s a satire of cold war hysteria, which sees a U.S. bomber sent to blow up a Russian target by an insane general. There are so many great moments in this film it’s hard to narow them down, but my favorites are the over-the-top silliness of George C. Scott as a general; cowboy star Slim Pickens as Major Kong, the bomber pilot, who wears a cowboy hat and rides the bomb to its finish like a bucking bronco; and Peter Sellers in three different roles. The film is full of great lines, most notably, “You can’t fight in here, this is the war room!”
Mary Poppins was the first film I ever saw in a movie theater. I was between three and four, and the parts that bored me then are the parts that moved me now, as this children’s fantasy film is, as we learned in Saving Mr. Banks, about the redemption of Mr. Banks, played beautifully by David Tomlinson. The film holds up today mostly because of the songs by the Sherman Brothers and the performance of Julie Andrews as Mary, which won her the Oscar. It’s the Sherman Brothers, not P.L. Travers, that gave us “Supercalifragilisticxpialidocious,” which is actually accepted by spell check.
My least favorite of the quintet is Zorba the Greek, which is one of those “straight-laced white guy has his life changed by an exotic,” this time with Alan Bates meeting the incorrigible Anthony Quinn. The film is set on the island of Crete, which shows the charms and ugliness of the people there (a woman is viciously killed for spurning the advances of a man), and Quinn plays Zorba as not so much a wise man but an overgrown child. Lila Kedrova won a supporting actress Oscar as a lonely hotelier, and the Greek music has become a staple at stadiums, used for exhorting rallies.
The winner was My Fair Lady, one of those bloated road-show musicals the ’60s were full of. This one is based on the Broadway show by Lerner and Loewe, which in turn was based on Shaw’s play Pygmalion. It has lots of famous songs, and Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins (Oscar winner), but i found it pretty much a crashing bore. Higgins, who takes on a bet to turn a cockney flower girl (Audrey Hepburn) into a lady, is a monstrous character who doesn’t deserve the ending he gets. This is why Shaw, in an afterword to his play, wrote that Eliza ends up with Freddy Eynsford-Hill. The highlights of the film, few and far between, are offered by Stanley Holloway as Alfred P. Dolittle.
Hepburn got the part of Eliza even though Julie Andrews played the part to great acclaim on Broadway. Because Hepburn couldn’t sing, she was dubbed by Marni Nixon (who also dubbed Natalie Wood in West Side Story). Hepburn was snubbed for an Oscar nomination, but Andrews won for her film debut.
My very favorite film from 1964 was also British, A Hard Day’s Night, and it’s not surprising that it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture (but it did get a nod for Best Screenplay). Other memorable films from that year were Viva Las Vegas, Marnie, A Fistful of Dollars, and the number one film at the box office, Goldfinger. All in all, not a bad year for movies.