by David Krauss
Over the past two weeks, we've examined the earliest Best Picture winners from the 1920s and 1930s and those films that won top honors during the 1940s and 1950s. This week, we turn our attention to the Oscar pictures of the 1960s and 1970s, a turbulent era in history that saw the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the escalation of the Civil Rights Movement and controversial Vietnam War, and the Watergate scandal that would upend and bring down the administration of President Richard Nixon. A revolution in filmmaking also began, as censorship rules would be relaxed, producers would gradually abandon the major studios and strike out on their own, and more adult topics would begin to be explored on screen in a frank, uncompromising manner. The 1960s would spawn many big-budget blockbusters and big-budget bombs, while more subdued artistry and gritty presentations prevailed in the 1970s with the emergence of such noteworthy directors as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski, and Woody Allen, and such stars as Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Jane Fonda, and Meryl Streep. The era would spawn 20 Best Picture winners. Eighteen are currently available on Blu-ray, and they are…
'The Apartment' (1960) – Billy Wilder's charming yet dark satire of corporate America and contemporary relationships earned the writer-director his second Best Director Oscar (the first was for 1945's Best Picture winner 'The Lost Weekend') and third Best Screenplay Oscar (the others were for 'The Lost Weekend' and 'Sunset Boulevard). Masterfully mixing comedy and drama and featuring excellent performances by Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray, 'The Apartment' tells the tale of a mild-mannered yet ambitious insurance agent who climbs the corporate ladder by loaning out his flat to his superiors for their extramarital trysts. Though not as uproarious as 'Some Like It Hot,' this incisive tale makes some stinging observations about American society that still ring true today.
'West Side Story' (1961) – Ten Oscars, including Best Director (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins), Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris), Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno), Best Color Cinematography, and Best Costume Design, as well as a special award to Jerome Robbins for his "brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film," went to this visually dazzling, emotionally wrenching, and exhaustively energetic adaptation of the hit Broadway musical. An updated version of Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' set in the tough concrete jungle of New York City, 'West Side Story' revolutionized the musical with its bold, in-your-face presentation, explosive themes, and raw power. The film also employs dance as a storytelling device and – aided by a classic Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim score that includes such gems as 'Tonight,' 'Maria,' 'Somewhere,' and 'America' – features some of the most thrilling numbers in Hollywood history. Even if you don't like musicals, you'll love 'West Side Story.'
'Lawrence of Arabia' (1962) – Five years after 'The Bridge on the River Kwai,' director David Lean won another Oscar for this mammoth, breathtakingly beautiful biopic that chronicles the exploits of British officer T.E. Lawrence, who, against impossible odds, stormed his way across the Arabian desert during World War I to beat back the encroaching Turks. His heroism, however, spawned an insufferable ego that eventually brought him down, and actor Peter O'Toole (whose formidable talent and piercing blue eyes put him on the cinematic map) earned his first of eight Best Actor nominations for his vigorous, wholly engaging portrayal of the controversial figure. Lean, however, is the true star of this eye-filling epic, crafting dazzling images that showcase the blistering terrain and show off his incomparable ability. Other well-deserved Oscars went to Fred A. Young for his exquisite cinematography and Maurice Jarre for his memorable score. The film's art direction, sound, and editing were also duly honored.
'My Fair Lady' (1964) – Another Broadway transplant, this sumptuous adaptation of the buoyant Lerner and Loewe musical (itself based on George Bernard Shaw's 'Pygmalion') won a total of eight Academy Awards, including the first – and only – Best Director prize for George Cukor. Rex Harrison was also cited for his finely honed turn as the crusty, chauvinistic Henry Higgins, an elocution expert who transforms a slovenly, flower-peddling guttersnipe named Eliza (Audrey Hepburn) into a high-toned, impeccably mannered lady. Gloriously colorful and featuring such classic tunes as 'On the Street Where You Live,' 'I Could Have Danced All Night,' and 'Get Me to the Church on Time,' 'My Fair Lady' remains an opulent, often enchanting production that also received awards for its cinematography, costume design, art direction, sound, and score.
'The Sound of Music' (1965) – The third musical in five years to take home the Best Picture statuette, 'The Sound of Music' improved upon the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage hit by shooting on location in Austria, shifting around a couple of songs (and adding a marvelous new one), and employing the spritely talents of Julie Andrews, who plays a young nun who becomes governess to a brood of recalcitrant children, turns them into a musical sensation, and falls in love with their stern father (Christopher Plummer). This somewhat fictionalized account of the genesis of the Von Trapp Family Singers was wildly popular in its day and remains a beloved classic. Robert Wise won a second Best Director award, but the film was bested by David Lean's 'Doctor Zhivago' in several categories.
'In the Heat of the Night' (1967) – With its finger firmly on the pulse of a racially divided America during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, this tough, provocative mystery proved blacks and whites could work together and earn at the very least a grudging mutual respect. Sidney Poitier, who utters the immortal line "They call me Mister Tibbs!", portrays a Northern police officer on vacation in Mississippi who's at first fingered for the murder of a wealthy businessman, then enlisted to help the town's bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve the crime. Steiger won a Best Actor Oscar for his colorful, slightly over-the-top performance, Stirling Silliphant picked up an award for his incendiary screenplay, and the film beat out such acclaimed fare as 'The Graduate' and 'Bonnie and Clyde' to win the Best Picture award.
'Oliver!' (1968) – Musicals continued to dominate the Oscars during the 1960s, and this British import scored big with audiences anxious to escape the turbulent times. Lionel Bart's tuneful adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic about a gutsy orphan (Mark Lester) who's sold into servitude and eventually becomes a London pickpocket beholden to the manipulative Fagin (Ron Moody) and his merry band of ragamuffin thieves was a huge stage success, and it's memorable score includes such melodic gems as 'Where Is Love?' and 'As Long as He Needs Me.' Carol Reed took home the Best Director award, and his ability to mix spritely musical numbers with the underlying darkness and menace of Dickens' tale helps lift this lavish production above others in its class.
'Midnight Cowboy' (1969) – The first Best Picture winner to reflect both contemporary urban sensibilities and the kind of no-nonsense, naturalistic filmmaking that would define the 1970s, 'Midnight Cowboy' also holds the distinction of being the only X-rated picture to be honored by the Academy. (Its rating was changed to R two years later after pornographic films became associated with the X rating.) The story of a naïve Texan (Jon Voight) who struggles to survive on New York City's unforgiving streets as a male hustler with his sickly yet feisty friend (Dustin Hoffman) is told with equal parts grit and grace, and performed to perfection by Voight and Hoffman, who both received Best Actor nominations. Featuring Hoffman's famous confrontation with a taxicab ("I'm walkin' here!!"), 'Midnight Cowboy' is rough, funny, tender, and heartbreaking, and a notable achievement for Best Director winner John Schlesinger.
'Patton' (1970) – Even into the 1970s, World War II movies were big box office, and this uncompromising, often riveting portrait of arguably America's toughest general became a bona fide blockbuster and revitalized the genre. George C. Scott embodies George S. Patton, capturing the legendary temper, cocksure attitude, and macho demeanor of "Old Blood and Guts," and Franklin J. Schaffner, who won the Best Director Oscar, chronicles the general's wartime exploits and personal confrontations with an equally firm hand. Scott famously refused his Best Actor award (he felt competition between actors was unfair), but such an audacious personal statement only enhances the power of his performance and connection to the real-life hero he portrays. Other Oscar wins included Best Screenplay (co-written by Francis Ford Coppola), Art Direction, Sound, and Editing.
'The French Connection' (1971) – Most notable for breaking the mold of police thrillers by portraying cops as just as corrupt and reprehensible as the criminals they pursue – as well as for an edge-of-the-seat car chase that still packs a visceral punch more than four decades later – 'The French Connection' lacks substance, but oh does it have style. Rough, raw, frenetic, and taut, the movie follows two hot-headed narcs (Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider) as they pursue a European drug kingpin and try to nail him. Though since eclipsed by 'The Departed,' 'The French Connection' featured more violence and foul language than any previous Best Picture winner, and its refusal to play by the rules makes it that much more interesting. Hackman and director William Friedkin also won Oscars, as did the movie's terrific editing and screenplay.
'The Godfather' (1972) – Since the early 1930s, gangster flicks captivated the public, but no mob movie ever possessed the scope, epic grandeur, dramatic intensity, and elegant craftsmanship of Francis Ford Coppola's brilliant adaptation of the Mario Puzo potboiler. The saga of the Corleones took America by storm and remains a mesmerizing portrait of greed, loyalty, duty, deception, and despair, as it focuses not only on the dirty deeds of a notable crime family, but also on the intricate relationships that drive and define it. The film contains Marlon Brando's last and Al Pacino's first great performances, as well as notable work from James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, and John Cazale. Amazingly, 'The Godfather' won only three Oscars (Best Picture, Actor, and Adapted Screenplay), and Brando refused his, protesting Hollywood's portrayal of Native Americans on film. (Remember Sacheen Littlefeather reading his statement on the podium?) 'Cabaret' was 1972's big victor, amassing eight Academy Awards, including one for Bob Fosse, who bested Coppola in the directing category, but Oscar's failure to appropriately honor 'The Godfather' doesn't diminish its impact or legacy. Despite its Italian heritage, the film remains a quintessentially American motion picture, and one of the all-time great family chronicles.
'The Sting' (1973) – Paul Newman and Robert Redford made a terrific team in 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,' but they really hit their stride as a pair when they reunited with director George Roy Hill for the buddy con-artist comedy, 'The Sting.' Impeccably scripted by David S. Ward (who, along with Hill for his direction, won an Oscar), this light-hearted, slickly plotted tale of grifters, revenge, and double-crosses is all about chemistry, and the dynamic duo of Newman and Redford deliver in spades. The ragtime music of Scott Joplin as adapted by Marvin Hamlisch (also an Oscar winner) enhances the period flavor, and legendary designer Edith Head won her eighth and final Academy Award for her dapper costumes. Interestingly, one of the producers of the 'The Sting' – Julia Phillips – became the first female producer to be nominated for and win the Best Picture award, paving the way for more women to take on larger behind-the-scenes roles in film production. 'The Sting' was also the first Universal film to win Best Picture since 'All Quiet on the Western Front' 43 years before.
'The Godfather, Part II' (1974) – Sequels almost never outclass and outshine the films that spawned them, but 'The Godfather, Part II' is the exception that proves the rule, a film of such power and grace it instantly embeds itself in one's consciousness. Longer, more tightly woven, more historically relevant, and even more fascinating than 'The Godfather,' this exquisitely mounted and executed movie follows the struggles of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) to expand the reach of his family's syndicate and keep his kin in check. In an inspired move, director Francis Ford Coppola (who would finally win a Best Director Oscar for this installment) juxtaposes Michael's story against extended flashbacks that chart the maturation and professional development of the young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) in both Sicily and turn-of-the-century New York. 'The Godfather' won only three Oscars; 'Part II' doubled that total, nabbing additional awards for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Robert De Niro), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, and Best Score. 'Part II' was also the first sequel to win Best Picture, and De Niro and Marlon Brando are the only two actors ever to win separate Oscars for playing the same character. Never would I dream of wishing a 200-minute movie would be longer, but that's how I feel about 'The Godfather, Part II.' It's practically perfection.
'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' (1975) – Not since 'It Happened One Night' in 1934 did a single film win the five major Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay – but this brilliant adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel deserved each and every accolade. Jack Nicholson gives the performance of his career as R.P. McMurphy, a crafty, cocky criminal who fakes insanity to avoid a hard-labor prison sentence, yet his incarceration in a mental hospital doesn't turn out to be as cushy as he'd like when he locks horn with the tyrannical Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher in an unforgettable portrayal), who never cracks a smile and never bends the rules. The two wage a battle royale as McMurphy continually questions her authority and baits and goads her like an impudent child, all while he begins to bond with his fellow patients and tries to help them attain a degree of freedom and self-respect. Expertly mixing comedy and tragedy, director Milos Forman fashions a film that's both exhilarating and devastating, and an unqualified masterpiece.
'Rocky' (1976) – One of the most beloved Best Picture winners in Oscar history, this feel-good tale of an overweight, down-on-his-luck fighter (Sylvester Stallone) who gets a Cinderella shot at the heavyweight title and a chance to reclaim his sense of self only won three Academy Awards, but it KO'd such stiff competition as 'All the President's Men,' 'Network,' and 'Taxi Driver.' In addition, it spawned a franchise that would result in six films, and gave birth to the modern sports movie. None of the sequels, however, can eclipse the original, which deftly balances pugnacity and tenderness, contains touching performances from Stallone (yes, even him!), Talia Shire, and Burgess Meredith, and features arguably the most iconic montage ever produced. Who can forget Rocky jogging up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum to the rousing strains of the story's anthem, 'Gonna Fly Now,' or a battered, bruised, and bloodied Balboa screaming "Adrian!!!" at the picture's climax? (Only Marlon Brando can yell a woman's name with more desperation.) 'Rocky' may not be high art, but it's popular, formulaic moviemaking at its finest.
'Annie Hall' (1977) – Comedies rarely take home the Academy's top honor, but there was something about this offbeat, bittersweet romance and its adorably quirky title character that got under Oscar's skin. Almost everyone fell in love with Annie Hall, as well as the actress (Diane Keaton) who played her and the film that bears her name – an honest, inventively structured, always funny, and, at times, quite wise commentary on the complicated nature of human relationships. The movie won both Best Director and the first of three Best Original Screenplay awards for its star, Woody Allen, instantly lifting the former stand-up comedian to the forefront of esteemed Hollywood artists, as well as a Best Actress award for Keaton, who became a fashion icon for her androgynous look and made "la-de-da" an iconic expression. Everyone who's ever been in love should see 'Annie Hall,' and most who do will cherish it.
'The Deer Hunter' (1978) – Though America hadn't yet come to terms with the Vietnam (the peace treaty had only been signed five years before), 'The Deer Hunter' brought back all the chaos and horror that defined the Southeast Asian war. Yes, Michael Cimino's film added some harrowing elements and tried to pass them off as fact, but despite such needless exaggerations, this chronicle of the conflict's impact on three close, blue-collar buddies remains an insightful, emotionally wrenching examination of how war can irreparably damage the human body and psyche. Yet even more than that, it's a moving portrait of male friendship and brotherhood. Though too long and at times unbalanced (that interminable first-act wedding scene is brutal!), 'The Deer Hunter' is far from the perfect Best Picture winner, but its underlying themes, epic presentation, and stellar performances from Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep (earning her first of 18 Oscar nominations), John Savage, and especially Christopher Walken (justly rewarded with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his agonizing portrayal) make it worthy of the honor.
'Kramer vs. Kramer' (1979) – A good old-fashioned family drama distinguished by a fine script, understated direction, and excellent performances, 'Kramer vs. Kramer' is one of the first modern films to acutely examine fatherhood from a serious, emotional perspective. This pitch-perfect adaptation of Avery Corman's novel proved to '70s audiences that men have feelings, too, and can be just as loving, nurturing, and sensitive as women when it comes to being a parent. With a gentle touch that will surely have you reaching for the Kleenex box, the film chronicles the developing bond between a workaholic father (Dustin Hoffman) and his cute-as-a-button seven-year-old son (Justin Henry) after the abrupt departure of their tortured wife and mother (Meryl Streep), who views herself as inadequate. Though a bitter custody battle forms the drama's crux, this beautiful film is all about relationships and men favoring family over career. Hoffman and Streep both won well-deserved Oscars for their exceptional portrayals, and Robert Benton was justly honored for both his direction and screenplay. Some may say the more inventive 'All That Jazz' or complex 'Apocalypse Now' would have been more deserving winners, but here simplicity triumphed over excess, and the human heart beat out the heart of darkness.
Best Picture Winners of the 1960s and 1970s Not Yet Available on Blu-ray:
'Tom Jones' (1963)
'A Man for All Seasons' (1967)
Best Picture Nominees of the 1960s and 1970s Available on Blu-ray:
'The Guns of Navarone' (1961)
'The Hustler' (1961)
'The Longest Day' (1962)
'The Music Man' (1962)
'Mutiny on the Bounty' (1962)
'To Kill a Mockingbird' (1962)
'How the West Was Won' (1963)
'Mary Poppins' (1964)
'Zorba the Greek' (1964)
'Doctor Zhivago' (1965)
'The Sand Pebbles' (1966)
'Bonnie and Clyde' (1967)
'The Graduate' (1967)
'Funny Girl' (1968)
'Hello, Dolly!' (1969)
'Love Story' (1970)
'A Clockwork Orange' (1971)
'Fiddler on the Roof' (1971)
'Nicholas and Alexandra' (1971)
'American Graffiti' (1973)
'The Exorcist' (1973)
'The Conversation' (1974)
'The Towering Inferno' (1974)
'Barry Lyndon' (1975)
'Dog Day Afternoon' (1975)
'All the President's Men' (1976)
'Taxi Driver' (1976)
'Star Wars' (1977)
'Midnight Express' (1978)
'Apocalypse Now' (1979)
'Norma Rae' (1979)
Next week: The 1980s