Fifty years ago. 1967. The year of the Summer of Love, the first Super Bowl, and the arrivals of Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, and Judd Apatow. In the movie world, it was something of a tipping point between old Hollywood and the new wave of American directors, and a film critic, Bosley Crowther, was pushed out of his job at the New York Times because of panning Bonnie and Clyde.
The five nominees for Best Picture were about as diverse as any that has ever been. You can read all about them in Mark Harris’ wonderful book Pictures at a Revolution. But here’s my take on the five films. I have seen all of them before, one of them over twenty times and another for the first time since I was six.
In alphabetical order, we start with Bonnie and Clyde. Directed by Arthur Penn, it was really Warren Beatty’s baby, and it changed the nature of film. The old guard, including Crowther, didn’t get it, this uncomfortable mixture of comedy and violence. But it would influence the film of the ’70s in the way no other film did. The project had been kicking around for years, and was at one time to be directed by Francois Truffaut, and then Jean-Luc Godard, who wanted to film it New Jersey in the winter. When told the weather would not be favorable to them, he said, “I’m talking about cinema, and you’re talking about meteorology!”
One of the worst films ever nominated for Best Picture. Doctor Dolittle was a critical and commercial flop. But Fox had no films to campaign for, so this was it. It is a bloated, boring musical based on the novels of Hugh Lofting, which are much better. The film had problems from the get-go, when Alan Lerner was fired because he took years to write a score. Rex Harrison was a nightmare on set. I was okay it when I was a child and don’t remember hating it–I sat through it’s 150 minutes; maybe I was interested in the animals. It did have the Oscar-winning Best Song, “Talk to the Animals.”
My choice for Best Picture would have been The Graduate, but then it’s one of my five favorite films of all time. I’ve seen it at least twenty times and could watch it right now. Mike Nichols made a film that captured the alienation of the young, made Dustin Hoffman a star, and used Simon and Garfunkel’s music (Mrs. Robinson was not nominated for an Oscar because the paperwork to have it considered was not turned in). It’s very quotable–“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me,” and “Plastics” are embedded in pop culture. Many older people hated it, but it was a huge hit, with lines around the block. Nichols won Best Director, but it was probably too modern for Academy members to honor it for Best Picture.
Old Hollywood was represented by Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which though centering on a hot topic, interracial marriage, was as square as Father Knows Best. Director Stanley Kramer teamed Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, who were stars forty years earlier, to play the white couple who could ease us into the world of mixed marriages. Sidney Poitier had to play a black man with no faults, making any opposition to the marriage to be about race and only race. The movie is probably best known for Tracy’s speech at the end, which states that it doesn’t matter the color of skin, it matters about the couple feel. Five weeks after filming ended, Tracy died. But it was Hepburn who got the Oscar, her second, half of her final total.
The winner of Best Picture was In the Heat of the Night, directed by Norman Jewison and also starring Sidney Poitier, this time as a fish out of water–a Philadelphia police detective stuck in small town in Mississippi to solve a murder, with the unlikely aid of white bigoted sheriff, Rod Steiger. The movie was far more edgy than Guess, but still remained in the realm of the mainstream, using the murder mystery template. There were no black fists raised or mentions of Huey Newton, but the film did present a black man in a white man’s world and he is not submissive. A scene in which Poitier struck a white man sent shock waves through the country, and Poitier’s indignance at being asked by Steiger, “What do they call you up there in Philadelphia?” has him reply, “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” with the emphasis on “Mr.” Steiger won Best Actor.