Saturday, March 6, 2010


the 1967 Oscars--a pivotal year

Sunday, it's the Academy Awards. Generally a dull, glitzy Tinseltown deathwatch that requires Herculean stamina (and maybe NoDoz), this year the Academy is attempting to win an audience by providing more nominees for Best Picture (ten! so you can root for your own favorite, whatever it is) and speeding up the traditionally glacial pace. We hope. In the past few years, the TV audience has dwindled to next to nothing. Other than criminal dullness, part of the problem may be that these days many people watch their movies at home (Viva Netflix!) and may not have seen the nominated films by Oscar time. Without a horse in the race, people don't give a shit. Money is a factor (as usual, commerce trumps art) so there will be heavy pressure on the Academy to include box office blockbusters among the critically acclaimed pictures. When popular favorites are skipped, people change the channel, and that means less people watching those valuable commercials. And of course there are battles being fought on the artistic front.

"The Graduate," a Best Picture nominee from 1967

These battles are nothing new. I'm currently reading "Pictures at a Revolution" by Mark Harris, a lively, well-researched book about the five Best Picture nominees of 1967. Harris says this was a pivotal year where some directors made a decisive break from creaky Old Hollywood and reflected new mores and attitudes, and films of a new sensibility were suddenly in the Oscar line-up; European-influenced films tweaking the Establishment ("Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Graduate") and more traditional social issue melodramas tackling race ("In The Heat of the Night" and the tepid "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner") battled with an old school "sure thing," a musical warhorse from the studios (the execrable "Dr. Dolittle"). Battle lines were drawn, and the good guys won. Well, sort of.

"Bonnie and Clyde" trailer, a 1967 Best Picture nominee

Like any entrenched institution, Hollywood resisted change, and feared movies about race would insult Southerners (meaning "Southern Whites," and yes, many southern theaters refused to screen those films) and worried that films reflecting more open attitudes about sex ("The Graduate" and "Bonnie and Clyde") would offend filmgoers in Middle America. "Bonnie and Clyde," with it's slam-bam mix of violence and laughs presaged "Pulp Fiction" and the Tarantino aesthetic by a long shot, and seemed shocking at the time, and many were outraged that it "glorified" criminal behavior. Sure they got killed in the last reel, but it was hardly a Hollywood ending. The cigar-chomping old guards like Zanuck and Co thought the films coming out of Italy and France were crap, and they didn't think the American public would go for these new, non-traditional American films (non-traditional for their time, now they seem quite tame) that they had inspired. Old Hollywood was crumbling and they knew it. This was a battle for a new kind of film, and it happened at the Oscars.

In any case, despite the odds being stacked against an interesting awards ceremony, once in a while the glossy world of Oscar becomes interesting.

Marlon Brando refuses the Best Actor award in 1972. John Wayne nearly had a cardiac.

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