1965: The year that the first U.S. ground troops landed in Vietnam, Dylan went electric, and Robert Downey Jr., Ben Stiller, and Chris Rock were born. It was a big year for Julie Christie, but it may just have been the worst year for Hollywood (in terms of quality), ever. As I have done now for nine years, I will take a look at the five films nominated for Best Picture. None of them are great, some of them have aged badly. Looking over the list of films released that year, it’s not like anything was egregiously passed over. It was the year of Beach Blanket Bingo, That Darn Cat!, and The Greatest Story Ever Told.
To start, alphabetically, is Darling, a British film directed by John Schlesinger that starred Julie Christie as a model who sleeps around London and Italy. I imagine it was very daring in its day, with its depiction of casual sex, abortion, and attacks on the callow youth of Swingin’ London. But today it comes off as horribly dated and not very profound. Christie won the Best Actress Oscar.
Christie also starred in Doctor Zhivago, one of David Lean’s patented three-hour-plus epics, this time set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution. Omar Sharif stars as the titular medical man, an apolitical fellow who gets caught up first in the fight between Bolsheviks and the loyalists, and then between the internecine squabble between Reds and Whites. Christie is Lara, who becomes Sharif’s mistress (he is one of the nicest adulterers ever seen in film). The movie wasn’t really that well received upon release, but has a better reputation today, though I found most of it a bore.
Another boring film is Ship of Fools, another socially-conscious film by Stanley Kramer. It’s set aboard a German passenger liner in 1933, an important year for Germany and world history. Based on a novel by Katherine Anne Porter, it’s been called “Grand Hotel on the water,” as it has several storylines going at once–sort of like the later U.S. TV series, The Love Boat. It’s a lugubrious film that plays with hindsight, such as when a Jewish man says of the new Nazi Party–“There’s one million Jews in Germany. What are they going to do, kill us all?” The film is notable for being the last for Vivienne Leigh, who plays a bitter divorcee who provides one of the few highlights when she spontaneously dances the Charleston.
If I had a vote back then, I would have gone with A Thousand Clowns, by default I guess. It’s a good film, and if Darling is a relic of British cinema of the decade, A Thousand Clowns represents the Jewish left-wing Broadway days, and can be seen as a link between the Beat Generation and the hippie counterculture. It is based on a Broadway play by Herb Gardner, about a TV writer (Jason Robards) who has quit his job and withdrawn from society. But, he is caring for his nephew, and the Child Welfare agency wants him to get a job or he loses custody of the kid. Thus, we have the opposite of the previous year’s Mary Poppins: instead of abusinessman learning to fly kites, we have a guy who flies kites who needs to learn business. Though bound by its stage origins, it’s funny and loquacious. Our own Marco reviewed it here.
The winner of the Oscar that year was The Sound of Music, which also became the highest-grossing film of all time (it knocked Gone With the Wind off the top spot, and would hold the honor until The Godfather seven years later). It was the second large-scaled musical to win in a row (after My Fair Lady) and a crowd pleaser, to be sure. But it has had its many detractors over the years. Gene Siskel went so far to say that while watching he rooted for the Nazis. When I was a kid my grandmother took me and I wanted to leave early. But watching it again I realize it’s actually a very accomplished picture–terrific editing and camera work (that opening helicopter zoom on Julie Andrews is still stunning, and the cutting during the puppet show of all things is superb) it’s just a very square film. It’s the kind of film that is for people who don’t go to a lot of movies, an event that doesn’t add to the literature of cinema. Time has not been good to it–it’s now a piece of kitsch, where people go and have sing-alongs and talk back, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
So what was the best film of 1965? Damned if I know. Patch of Blue, which I saw on TV many, many years ago, was ahead of its time but is not available on DVD. Cat Ballou, for which Lee Marvin won an Oscar, is an enjoyable if slight comedy. If you had asked me when I was twelve I would have told you The Great Race, in which Blake Edwards tries to replicate It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and misses (but not by much). The James Bond entry that year was Thunderball.
In foreign films, Sergio Leone gave us For a Few Dollars More, Fellini had Juliet of the Spirits, Jean-Luc Godard gave us Alphaville, and Milos Forman had Loves of a Blonde. I have more 1965 films to see, but, from a Hollywood standpoint, it was a critical disaster.