And the Oscar Should Have Gone to…
The 1969 Contenders Ranked
“The greatest decade in the history of the human race and….” Obviously, that statement came from someone stoned mightily out of his gourd, but the shadow cast by the ’60s is nevertheless a very long one. And however much it was by design (Tavistock, CIA, NASA bringing up the rear, whomsoever) or happenstance, it came to a very pronounced, curtailed fizzle in its last year, not least thanks to some prolific, Hollywood-shaking murders. Whether these were legit either – meaning happened, as reported, or happened, owing to MKUltra shenanigans, or were simply bringing up the rear to Apollo 11 for the year’s psyops, so also MKUltra ordained, is open to debate, but the effect was undeniable. That Tarantino offered an alt-history, his favoured version of events, may simply reflect a fiction overriding a fiction, something Tinseltown’s finest are more than adept at/prescribed to perform, as Jimbo’s Titanic proved.
In terms of Oscars, the 1967 nominees represented something of a test run for the New Hollywood; ’68’s event went by like as if that had never happened, but the vibes in ’69 could not be ignored, regardless of the requisite musical, period piece or stalwart actor being finally rewarded (no matter how out-of-step his presence). The winners at the 42nd Academy Awards largely reflected the changes afflicting the old system, increasingly at a loss due to costly failures. Midnight Cowboy, Z and Butch and the Sundance Kid went away with multiple awards, with only Hello, Dolly! – excessively costly, if escaping being an outright failure – representing the trad approach. Confirmation, then, that studios needed to rethink their assumed golden calves. The positive was that, by and large, the Oscars would remain populated by interesting and largely deserving fare for another ten years. Not that they’d get everything right…
While I haven’t listened to their podcast, I’ve been reading Best Pick (John Dorney, Jessica Regan and Tom Salinsky). It’s a breezy read. If you fancy defining each decade by its progressive credentials, that is (no prizes for guessing which ’90s Best Picture winner is awarded “Worst of the Best”, despite admitting upfront it isn’t the worst). I suppose one might defend their approach as entirely fitting, since the Academy is nothing if not dedicated to virtue signalling, but it quick grows very tiresome. The trio also seriously miss a trick through failing to pick the best out of those nominated – they cast their net across the entire year – while spuriously rehearsing the old “favourite” vs “best” argument, but then ignoring it when it suits. Plus, they get 1969 resoundingly wrong (clue: two of them plumb for the actual winner).
Fox unwisely mounted a slew of no-brainer musicals off the back of The Sound of Music’s success – Doctor Dolittle (1967), Star! (1968), and this – all of them pushing the studio precipitously towards its post-Cleopatralack-of fortunes. Hello Dolly! simply cost much, much too much, given its take, suggesting that, as popular as she was, Funny Girl Barbra Streisand wasn’t a licence to print money. The picture, unremarkably directed by Gene Kelly, who could and had done better, is crippled by a catastrophic chemistry vacuum between Streisand’s matchmaker Dolly Levi and her eventual match Walter Matthau (as not-millionaire Horace Vandergelder). I’ll give Babs the credit of trying her best to make this work, but it’s inert, misguided and goes on and on and on. Full Review
$25m rentals (on a $26m budget) ($15m rentals US, 5th)
Anne of the Thousand Days
Chemistry’s also a problem in Anne of the Thousand Days, with technically fine performances from Richard Burton and Geneviève Bujold as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn respectively, but a conspicuous absence of spark between them. Not helping any is Charles Jarrott’s wallpaper direction, ensuring this is the very definition of the functional epic, designed to be wound up and duly collect Oscar nominations as it’s set on its way. Which it did, but no one had much to say about the film subsequently; it was forgotten almost as soon as the dust, and fillet mignon and champagne served to pliant Academy voters, settled. There are some more-than-decent supporting performances – the also-nominated Anthony Quayle as Cardinal Wolsey, John Colicos as Cromwell, William Squire as Sir Thomas More – but the picture is conspicuously lacking the driving force that made the decade’s previous Henry VIII picture a deserving Best Picture Oscar winner. Full Review
$6m rentals, US
John Schlesinger’s acclaimed, taboo-busting (the first and only X-rated Best Picture Oscar winner) hustler pic is a massively overrated downer. Which isn’t to suggest there’s anything wrong with downer movies, although see also Million Dollar Baby, but it doesn’t help any. What you do need, to help the nasty medicine go down, is a degree of sympathy, or at least empathy, for your protagonist. Alas, in the form of Jon Voight’s oblivious doofus, a self-styled gigolo who receives a rude awakening when he attempts to sell his wares on the streets of NYC, there’s precious little to go round. Sidekick Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) is a different matter, an energetic dervish who does all the heavy lifting in attempting to make Midnight Cowboy compelling. One thing I’ll give the movie, though; it’s win is as effective a way to announce the shattered dream of the decade as Easy Rider’s would have been. Ironically, it’s greatest asset (Everybody’s Talkin’) wasn’t eligible for Best Song. Full Review
$44.8m ($20.5m rentals US, 3rd)
Allowing Hollywood to massage its increasing tendency towards political grandstanding – although, see also the year’s Best Actor Oscar win – the recognition for Z and its version of the events that led to the then-current Greek military junta is actually as much a validation of co-writer-director Costa-Gavras’ stylistic innovations (it helped too to be able to claim a foreign-language film as one of the big five; all the better for inclusive, expansive, progressive thinking. See the much later Parasite for more where that came from).
Three of the pictures nominated for Oscar gold were very much innovators in technique, paving the way of things to come. Out with the old. Ironically, the verité, docudrama approach would scupper Alfred Hitchcock’s attempts at another political thriller based on actual events that same year (Topaz), but Z’s form would nevertheless become hugely influential. Not least in legitimising the conspiracy-theory thriller, a staple of the subsequent decade. Full Review
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Pauline Kael loudly decried Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – The Wild Bunch was much more her cup of tea – but she was wildly off beam in her assessment. Her slightly absurd attempts to belittle it included the batshit assessment that “Alice’s Restaurant is formally superior to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, on the basis that the former is “groping to express something” whereas the latter is “a glorified vacuum”. Would that all glorified vacuums were so nourishing! (We must remember, however, that Kael had hitched her cart to Arthur Penn following her paean to Bonnie and Clyde; she likely felt compelled to make good on her investment in its director, even when she realised it was for naught).
Essentially, every element that narked her goes to makes the movie so celebrated, the way it “rings false”, is “a facetious western, and everybody in it talks comical”. She considered it “a put on that took its mockery seriously, kept straining towards the lyrical and the legendary”. But Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s great strength is that it fully understands the lure of the lyrical and legendary, that they’re conceits, inventions, confabulations, and it plays with those ideas while presenting them with a fresh coat of paint, with buzzy stars and an irresistible Burt Bacharach score. It’s is an absolute masterpiece, one that is endlessly rewatchable, and far and away superior to the “spiritual sequel” almost half a decade hence. Which surely won Best Picture as atonement for the true deserving party missing out. Full Review
$102.3m US, 1st
Snubs: As ever, one can make the case for pictures the Academy would never have gone anywhere near (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), but had this been, as per current rules, a year with ten places to fill, others would likely have included They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (not, in my view, in any way shape or form deserving), Easy Rider and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. The other two slots? The Wild Bunch might have made the grade (more likely than True Grit, although there’s doubtless a limit to how many westerns would be nominated in a year). As for the other, The Sterile Cuckoo, Goodbye, Columbus or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie all seem feasible.
And the rest…
Winner: John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy)
Should have won: George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)
George Roy Hill could be hit and miss as a director – as could John Schlesinger, for that matter – but he gets everything right in Butch (that wasn’t all he got during the making of The World of Henry Orient half a decade earlier, adopting the Lolita approach with young star Tippy Walker). Certainly, his subsequent recognition for The Sting was entirely unwarranted. Neither Penn nor Sydney Pollack really earned their nods for Alice’s Restaurant (too thin) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t Horses? (trying too hard) respectively, so the only other legitimate contender would be Costa-Gavras. Kael took issue with what she perceived as Schlesinger’s attack on America – she could get quite uppity in that regard – but his bigger crime is an assault of the overbearingly maudlin that’s quite exhausting.
Snubs: Sam Peckinpah’s innovative work on the year’s other revisionist western really ought to have been recognised. Let’s face it, he’s the force that made it the hit it was, and his impact on the action genre still reverberates. Both Peter Collinson (The Italian Job) and Peter Hunt (OHMSS) did sterling work in that same action arena, but such skills are almost never recognised unless the results border on the art movie (Fury Road).
Winner: John Wayne (True Grit)
Should have won: Peter O’Toole (Goodbye, Mr Chips)
Self-evidently, Wayne wouldn’t have won this had he not had the sympathy vote of a potentially terminal case of cancer in his corner. That may sound cynical, but it’s exactly how Hollywood calculates these things (hence, the not unreasonable assumption that Chadwick Boseman would claim a posthumous Oscar; the glaring error being that, unlike say Heath Ledger, or even Wayne in this case, the actual part he was nominated for wasn’t in the least bit memorable, noteworthy or meritorious). So yes, at least Wayne had a notable role (one Jeff Bridges went on to make mumblemouth hay from four decades later).
Of the other contenders, it seems Richard Burton was considered a hot ticket, certainly as far as Liz Taylor was concerned. But serviceable as his Henry VIII is, he was unable to fashion something vital from the stodge that was Anne of the Thousand Days. Nevertheless, Wayne considered was a fan, telling Burton he deserved the Oscar (it might simply be that Burton was the only fellow nominee who didn’t give off the air of being a little bit Nancy, or Marion). Consequently, they caroused the post-ceremony night away, the beshtest pals evah.
Arguably, Hoffman and Voight cancelled each other out for Midnight Cowboy. And arguably, Hoffman’s is really a supporting role. Ratso Rizzo is certainly the performance that has most endured in the public perception out of the five. However, it’s O’Toole’s sensitively divined turn as Mr Chips, transitioning from stuffy and remote to warm and giving, yet never appearing to do so by ACTING, that is the most impressive here. I don’t even begrudge him the singing (probably because the musical aspect is half-cocked at best). This was, of course, his fourth Best Actor nomination that decade, and he ought to have won for Lawrence of Arabia, no contest. He’d receive four further lead nods, famously never winning outright (but getting the feeble sop of lifetime achievement). I’d recalled him being nominated as Best Supporting Actor for The Last Emperor too, but that was clearly wishful thinking.
Snubs: None as such, although Oliver Reed’s in maximum-charm mode (ultra-rare, I know) in The Assassination Bureau. It’s too lightweight to have garnered serious consideration, though.
Winner: Maggie Smith (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie)
Should have won: Maggie Smith (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie)
Can’t argue with this. Smith too often had to make do with solid filler, respectable supporting roles – heritage types – rather than truly great ones, but Jean Brodie was one to dig her teeth into, an eccentric du jour, and she thoroughly deserved all the plaudits going. Of the rest, Liza Minnelli’s space-case psycho and Jean Simmons’ souse housewife reborn are both singular in movies that are either merely adequate or a drudge, while Geneviève Bujold must take at least half the blame for failing to ignite much of anything with Richard Burton (he hated her, so it goes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the results are destined to be hopeless on screen). Jane Fonda, meanwhile, may have been all Hanoi and peace signs at the ceremony, but her brittle Gloria in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a slog in an endurance test of a movie (its particular brand of non-stop dancing has absolutely nothing on the variety described by Peter Cook).
Snubs: Petula Clark is genuinely great in Goodbye, Mr Chips. Honestly.
Best Supporting Actor
Winner: Gig Young (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?)
Should have won: Jack Nicholson (Easy Rider)
Evidently, I’m not the greatest fan of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and so Gig’s celebrated turn did very little for me (it ultimately did very little for him either, and less still for his fifth wife). The remaining nominees are formidable, with Rupert Crosse in The Reivers and Elliot Gould in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice bringing considerable charm to their roles. Quayle is also one of the best parts of Anne of the Thousand Days as the canny Thomas Wolsey. Really, though, this counts as one of the most recognisable misses in Oscar history, as it’s absurd that Jack didn’t win for his half-hour stint in Easy Rider. During which he IS the lead actor.
Snubs: Robert Stephens hoovers up the role of Miss Jean Brodie’s obsessed fellow teacher.
Best Supporting Actress
Winner: Goldie Hawn (Cactus Flower)
Should have won: Susannah York (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?)
Okay, I don’t actually think Goldie Hawn is very good in Cactus Flower (and I’m a fan of her in many of her later movies). Dyan Cannon in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and Sylvia Miles in Midnight Cowboy are both perfectly decent (although, awarding the performances in Midnight Cowboy is akin to garlanding Nic Cage for Leaving Las Vegas. You can go there, but you’ll feel dirty in the morning). So I have to recant on my disinclination towards They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? as York, in her breakdown scene, is the one time the picture escapes its rather facile metaphor and determined despondency and becomes entirely compelling (full confession: I haven’t seen Last Summer, but a number of commentators have suggested Catherine Burns’ performance should have been the one rewarded).
Snubs: Pamela Franklin, a fine unsung actress, makes a formidable foil to Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (she was rightly BAFTA nominated).
Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen
Winner: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (William Goldman)
Should have won: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (William Goldman)
One of the best screenplays bar none, so of course it deserved to win (Goldman has suggested Kael had a point in some of her criticisms, but what does he know?) I’d debate the inclusion of Easy Rider, as whatever Southern’s involvement, the picture was clearly salvaged in the editing room. (The others: The Damned, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, The Wild Bunch.)
Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published
Winner: Midnight Cowboy (Waldo Salt, based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy)
Z (Jorge Semprún and Costa-Gavras, based on the novel by Vassilis Vassilikos
Z is the only one of the nominees in this category that stands out, and even in that case, I’d be inclined to argue that its effectiveness is its stylistic choice, rather than particular quality of the adaptation. (The others: Anne of the Thousand Days, Goodbye, Columbus, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?)
Best Original Song
Winner: Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head (Burt Bacharach and Hal David) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Should have won: Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head (Burt Bacharach and Hal David) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Given their resources, it’s quite incredible how few of the Best Song nominees each year are any good. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’s Jean is an indifferently melancholy croon from Rod Mckuen, only upped in the melancholy croon stakes by Michael Dees on The Happy Ending’s What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?(he’s giving it some welly, though). Glen Campbell’s True Grit (Don Black) is exactly what you’d expect of a tie-in unmoored to any kind of contemporary cachet. The Sandpipers’ Come Saturday Morning is quite decent, and actually feels like it was released in 1969, so there’s that. On the debit side, it’s used as an earworm throughout The Sterile Cuckoo. So no, this clearly goes BJ Thomas singing Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head. I don’t care that it was singled out as a blatant and intrusive cash-in. It’s always felt indelibly part of the movie to me.
Snubs: The only one that could have beaten Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head, also by Bacharach and Hal David, is Louis Armstrong’s We Have All the Time in the World, one of the best songs ever, and the best Bondsong. It should have been nominated, and it should have won. Full stop. Also verging on the miraculous is Quincy Jones’ Getta Bloomin’ Move On! (The Self Preservation Society). I’m tempted to include The Magic Christian’s Come and Get It (Badfinger, written by Macca), but that wasn’t released in the US until 1970; it didn’t appear among the following year’s nominees either, however.
Best Original Score
Winner: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Burt Bacharach)
Should have won: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Burt Bacharach)
First things first: John Williams’s score for The Reivers is godawful larky schmaltz. Ernest Gold’s The Secret of Santa Vittoria is as pseudo-Italian as a jig is Oirish. Georges Delerue (Anne of the Thousand Days) and Jerry Fielding (The Wild Bunch) are fine. Only Bacharach’s score is truly great, though.
Snubs: As above, Quincy Jones for The Italian Job and John Barry for OHMSS. I’d be tempted to throw in Ron Goodwin’s very funny score for Monte Carlo or Bust! too.
Best Score – Original or Adaptation
Winner: Hello Dolly! (Lennie Hayton and Lionel Newman)
Should have won: Sweet Charity (Cy Coleman)
This is where overblown musicals became an active millstone to studios. The best of the pictures in this line up has probably the worst score (Goodbye, Mr. Chips). Sweet Charity is, for the most part, quite forgettable too, but it can boast Big Spender and the Fugg, so it’s head and shoulders above the rest. (The others: Paint Your Wagon, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?)
Best Art Direction
Winner: Hello, Dolly!
Should have won: Sweet Charity
Essentially, we’re back in the territory of Best Score of a Musical Picture. At its best, during key, core musical moments, Sweet Charity’s art direction is sublime. (The others: Anne of the Thousand Days, Gaily, Gaily, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?)
Winner: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Conrad Hall)
Should have won: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Conrad Hall)
No contest here. Quite why Anne of the Thousand Days’ entirely unremarkable photography got a nod is beyond me. (The others: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Hello, Dolly!, Marooned.)
Best Costume Design
Winner: Anne of the Thousand Days
Should have won: Sweet Charity
Dusting off medieval frocks doesn’t really do it for me, although it invariably seems to tickle the Academy’s fancy. I’m a little surprised Hello, Dolly! didn’t win this one, actually. (The others: Gaily, Gaily, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?)
Best Visual Effects
Should have won: Marooned
A less than remarkable year for effects work. Observably so, when your sole competition is Krakatoa, East of Java.
Best Film Editing
Should have won: Z
Rightly so, as the innovative editing was one of its signature elements and proved to be highly influential, not least to won terrormeister (and terror) William Friedkin. (The others: Hello, Dolly!, The Secret of Santa Vittoria, Midnight Cowboy, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?)
Snubs: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; The Italian Job.
Winner: Hello, Dolly!
Should have won: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Perhaps, technically, Dolly! did deserve it, but I’d add this to a Butch and Sundance sweep. (The others: Anne of the Thousand Days, Marooned, Gaily, Gaily.)
My Top 5 Films of the Year
Honourable Mentions: Performance, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, The Illustrated Man, The Wild Bunch, Z, Support Your Local Sheriff.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Ronald Neame would get bogged down in grand disaster spectacles during the ’70s, but he knows well enough to let the actors do their thing in this riveting, often very funny adaptation of Muriel Sparks’ novella. Maggie Smith’s Oscar was entirely deserved for her performance as the eccentric school teacher ultimately hoisted by her own petard. There’s also sterling support from hubby Robert Stephens, Pamela Franklin as her pupil cum nemesis and Celia Johnson as the disapproving headmistress. There are undoubtedly much more “cinematic” pictures to be found in this year, but few quite so compelling.
Monte Carlo or Bust
“Oh, pip-pip, sir!” Semi-sequel to the much more successful Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, Monte Carlo or Bust (or Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies) is actually superior in almost every aspect, apportioning out a selection of reliably likeable national and gender stereotypes – sex-mad Italian men, sexy French ladies, upper-crust Empire-obsessed English, Gert Froebe (“as surely as God made little apfelstrudels”) – along with the magnificently, deliciously rotten cad of a bounder that is Terry-Thomas. If there’s a weak link, its Tony Curtis’ upright and true American, but even he gets a free pass amid the welter of auto-mayhem.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
It’s a testament to just how good this is that dullard double-o-Daniel saw fit to appropriate its glittering jewels for his recent botched Bond denouement (the meaningful relationship; the all-timer theme; the death of a main character). George Lazenby is an altogether more likeable Bond than Craig, though, Diana Rigg an entirely more engaging Bond girl, and the picture commendably much less interested in self-important puffery. Peter Hunt, graduating from editor to director, ought really to have been the series go-to for the next decade, as this is the most dynamic 007 escapade pre-90s (that we should finish up with unadorned John Glen during the ’80s is an indicator of how skew-whiff Eon’s priorities were). Most of all, this is the Bond movie with heart; it’s no wonder it was seen by the current era as something to aim for. The irony is that, like the obsession with The Wrath of Khan, you end up making a pig’s ear of things when you try to recapture past glories.
The Italian Job
Got an idea? Almost musical in its giddy confidence, Peter Collinson’s picture has since become an emblem for, amongst other things, laddism and Cool Britannia, but take those unnecessary add-ons away and you have a jaunty, witty, zippy heist movie fashioned with sure craft & verve and led by a star who had become an iconic fixture of that decade, bidding it farewell with a final obliging sign-off gesture. Populated by such faces as Noël Coward, Tony Beckley and, er, Benny Hill, and sublimely accompanied by a Quincy Jones score – and THAT song – The Italian Job is a rightful evergreen. And, like those above and below it on this list, it boasts a truly iconic final scene.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Nothing much to add to the comments in the Best Picture ranking. One of my all-time favourite westerns (up there with the Leones) and all-time favourite movies. It’s the ultimate buddy movie – The Man Who Would Be King perhaps excepted – and a picture that manages to be both period-shrewd and perfectly evocative of the era in which it was made.