"Consider Yourself" - one of the happy-go-lucky songs that defies the bleakness of the story in Oliver! (1968)

 

The 41st Academy Awards, for the film year 1968.  The nominations were announced on February 24, 1969 and the awards were held on April 14, 1969.

Best Picture:  Oliver!

  • The Lion in Winter
  • Rachel, Rachel
  • Funny Girl
  • Romeo and Juliet

Most Surprising Omission:  2001: A Space Odyssey

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  2001: A Space Odyssey

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #71

The Race: The two films in the early part of the year earning all the talk, great reviews and box office were 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rosemary’s Baby.  But while both of them were winning people over, they were also part of two genres – Science Fiction and Horror – that had never done particularly well with the Academy.  The first film in a more traditional genre to start vying for awards attention wasn’t from a hip acclaimed filmmaker; instead it was the first film from Paul Newman, starring his wife, Joanne Woodward: Rachel, Rachel.  As the fall arrived, more traditional Academy fare opened – the new version of Romeo and Juliet, with actual teenagers in the lead and Funny Girl, the musical biopic of comedienne Fanny Brice, with the debut film performance of Barbra Streisand.  But all of these would pale in comparison to the final two major contenders: Oliver! and The Lion in Winter.

The New York Film Critics kicked things off with a big fight.  It looked like The Lion in Winter and John Cassavetes’ small film Faces had tied for Best Picture, when bylaws lead to another ballot in which The Lion in Winter won, prompting the resignation of four of the members who had panned the film.  The National Board of Review didn’t solve the matter, instead going with The Shoes of the Fisherman, a film with mixed reviews that wasn’t expected to contend for the Oscars.  Next up was the National Society of Film Critics and for the second year in a row they chose an Ingmar Bergman film – this time Shame.  The Directors Guild chimed in, narrowing the field of major contenders by nominating The Lion in Winter, 2001, Rachel, Rachel, Oliver and Funny Girl.  But 2001 failed to earn any Golden Globe nominations and in spite of winning Best Director, Rachel Rachel failed to earn a Best Picture nomination.  Oliver, Funny Girl and The Lion in Winter were looking very strong, especially with Picture and Director nominations from the Globes, enhanced by Writers Guild wins for both Lion and Funny Girl.  Just two days before the Oscars were announced, the DGA gave their award to Anthony Harvey for The Lion in Winter (which also won Best Picture – Drama at the Globes and things were looking very good for it).

The Results: Oliver lead the pack with 11 nominations, but The Lion in Winter, with its 7 nominations was looking strong.  Since 1951, only two films had won both the DGA and WGA and failed to win the Oscar and those were both comedies – The Quiet Man and The Graduate.  No director had ever won the DGA and lost the Oscar.  It looked like Oliver would take home the technical awards, but Lion would be the big winner.  The other nominees – Rachel, Rachel, Funny Girl, and surprise nominee Romeo and Juliet were just along for the ride.  Stanley Kubrick had to make do with 3 separate nominations for 2001 (Director, Screenplay, Special Visual Effects) to console him when his film wasn’t nominated.  But when the big night came, first Best Director went to Oliver.  Then, with Oliver ahead 4 to 3, it also won Best Picture to finish off the night.

 

Oliver! - proof that a terrible performance from your lead is not a roadblock to winning Best Picture at the Oscars

 

Oliver!

  • Director:  Carol Reed
  • Writer:  Vernon Harris  (from the play by Lionel Bart adapted from the novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens)
  • Producer:  John Woolf
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Mark Lester, Ron Moody, Oliver Reed, Jack Wild
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium, Actor (Moody), Supporting Actor (Wild), Editing, Cinematography, Score of a Musical Picture – Original or Adaptation, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  460
  • Length:  153 min
  • Genre:  Musical
  • Box Office Gross:  $37.40 mil  (#6  –  1968)
  • Release Date:  10 December 1968
  • MPAA Rating:  G
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #24  (year)  /  #296  (nominees)  /  #66  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  35

The Film:  Oliver was always a contradiction.  But then, the original novel Oliver Twist was rather a contradiction as well.  It is designed, overall, as a form of comedy.  And the film (and the stage musical before it), is full of light-hearted songs like “Consider Yourself”, songs that make you want to get up and dance (well, some people – I am not particularly fond of any of the songs in Oliver).  But that is countered by the overwhelming tragedy of the actions involved.  True, we have what is essentially a happy ending for Oliver, in that he is reunited with his family, even if his mother is long dead (the familial connections in Oliver Twist have always struck me as the least plausible coincidence in all of Dickens).  This film even gives us an extra happy ending by having the Dodger and Fagin dance off into the distance, a ridiculous happy ending that counters the book itself.  But the overall actions in Oliver, the misery of the orphanage, the potential for happiness stolen away, the brutal death of Nancy, all of this belies the song and dance routines.  It’s not that musicals can’t have tragic scenes, but you do have to have the kind of music and scenes that fit the actions.

Oliver is a good film and it nearly moves into the higher realm of being very good, but it can’t quite make that connection.  The music and the song and dance scenes are part of the problem.  They add too much lightness to what is essentially a dark story.  But the biggest problem, right at the heart of the film, is Mark Lester as Oliver.  If he had been cast for his voice, then that would have made sense, for he is quite terrible.  He embraces all the problems with child actors – he stands around and lets things happen to him, reacts pathetically, doesn’t ever seem to realize the film he is in and is just generally irritating.  But he wasn’t cast for his voice.  In fact, he was tone deaf and all of his singing had to be dubbed.  Given that, what on earth made the producers think that was the right person for the role?  His performance is so bad that is brings down the film around him.

The film itself is fairly well made.  Though it is obviously made on a studio set, they do wonders with the sets and the costumes, it is solidly directed by Carol Reed and has fine performances from Ron Moody as Fagin, Jack Wild as the Dodger and a suitably menacing performance by Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes (perhaps the one performance that is better than any other film version of the novel.  But overall, it just doesn’t get any better than being a good film.  There’s too much of a hole there right in the center.

 

two of the best performances of the decade - Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter (1968)

 

The Lion in Winter

  • Director:  Anthony Harvey
  • Writer:  James Goldman  (from his play)
  • Producer:  Martin Poll
  • Studio:  Avco Embassy
  • Stars:  Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, Jane Merrow, John Castle, Timothy Dalton, Nigel Terry
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium, Actor (O’Toole), Actress (Hepburn), Original Score – for a Motion Picture not a Musical, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  345
  • Length:  134 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Historical)
  • Box Office Gross:  $22.27 mil
  • Release Date:  30 October 1968
  • MPAA Rating:  PG – the IMDb claims this as the rating, even though this rating didn’t exist in 1968
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #4  (year)  /  #107  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (O’Toole), Actress (Hepburn), Supporting Actor (Hopkins), Supporting Actor (Castle), Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  465

The Film:  What if Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf took place in the 12th Century, and if instead of a college professor and his wife it involved the King and Queen of England.  And what if the children were real.  Imagine that.  It’s sort of an introduction to The Lion in Winter.  The comparison is more than apt.  In both cases, they had been stage plays first, with the casts replaced by big stars for the film.  Both films were made by novice directors (Anthony Harvey had made one film previously – a 55 minute film called Dutchman).  Both received tremendous reviews and a number of awards, but ultimately fell short at the Oscars (while both won Best Actress, they both deserved to win Best Actor and failed to – for two friends who are possibly the most distinguished actors to never win Oscars – Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole).  Both are well directed, filled with phenomenal acting, fantastically written and were the best nominees of their respective years.

How good is the acting in The Lion in Winter?  It is so good that it was only going back to it a few years ago (I have seen it several times) that I noticed that there is a great performance that goes almost completely unnoticed – ironic, given that the character spends the whole film complaining about he has never been noticed by either of his parents.  I lost sight of him for several reasons.  First, the actor, John Castle, is the least known to me of the major players (he has done a lot of British TV, but has been in very few things that I have seen).  Second, to have such a smooth and subtle performance in the same film as the bombastic amazing performances from O’Toole, Hepburn and Hopkins, naturally means he would be less noticed.  Third, is that Geoffrey is the character least known to history.  When you are the middle brother in a family that includes Richard the Lion-Heart and John, the villainous prince from the Robin Hood legends and the king who signed the Magna Carta, you aren’t likely to be well remembered.  Castle’s performance as Geoffrey is smart, subtle and intriguing, partially because he knows he won’t win, but he’s determined to help influence the actual winner.

But, as I said, Castle is the less noticed performer.  There is also the sly performance by Timothy Dalton as the young king of France, the outsider to this gathering of family.  (The plot in a nutshell: Henry II is getting old and wants to decide his kingdom so it is not split after he dies, so he gathers his wife, who has been in prison for 15 years on his orders, and his three sons to Christmas Court where all will be decided).  Dalton’s performance is just as smart and naive as it needs to be, depending on the moment.  But he and Jane Merrow as Alais are also a little lost in the background.  The real power in the film comes from the great trifecta of Peter O’Toole, as Henry, Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor and Anthony Hopkins as Richard.  O’Toole was always a great actor, but this is the closest he ever came to his performance as T.E. Lawrence.  Just four years after playing Henry in Becket at a much younger age, here, a good 15 years younger than the age he is playing, seems a natural.  He seems worn down by the pressure of being king, of fighting off his sons and his wife, of ruling not just England, but Ireland, Scotland and much of France.  He is determined to make things come out his way.  His chief adversary is Eleanor, his queen, much older than him and determined to make Richard the king when Henry is gone.  Katharine Hepburn, who had won the Oscar the year before rather undeservedly, here gives Eleanor everything she’s got and the result is the finest performance of Hepburn’s long and glorious career.  She and O’Toole really do seem like they have been married forever and have warred forever.

But everyone knows about those performances because Hepburn won the Oscar and O’Toole, somehow managed to lose to Cliff Robertson in one of the worst choices the Academy ever made.  But this was the first feature film that Anthony Hopkins was in.  Watching him for the first time, years ago, just after Silence of the Lambs had been released, I was stunned to realize that this was the same person.  His performance as Richard is much more intense, full of bile and anger, almost the exact opposite of his cool, mannered Hannibal Lector.  But it was obvious to me that it was an amazing performance, one that should have won the Oscar, yet somehow didn’t even earn a nomination.  Though it would take a while before he truly became a star and started getting Oscar nominations, it was clear from the start that this was the arrival of a major acting talent.

There’s no question that of the five films, this is easily the best.  It somehow managed to lose Best Director at the Oscars, the first film to ever win the DGA to do so (perhaps because Carol Reed had been around for a long time and was well respected, whereas this was Harvey’s first full-length feature film after working for a decade as an editor), and the Academy decided to go for the musical rather than the intelligent drama in a last gasp for the genre itself.  At least they got it right by giving Hepburn and Goldman the Oscars.

 

Rachel, Rachel - Paul Newman's directorial debut (1968)

 

Rachel, Rachel

  • Director:  Paul Newman
  • Writer:  Stuart Stren  (from the novel A Jest of God by Margaret Laurence)
  • Producer:  Paul Newman
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Joanne Woodward, Estelle Parsons, James Olson
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium, Actress (Woodward), Supporting Actress (Parsons)
  • Oscar Points:  155
  • Length:  101 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  26 August 1968
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #21  (year)  /  #260  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Woodward), Supporting Actress (Parsons)
  • Nighthawk Points:  65

The Film:  Rachel, Rachel is a perfect example of why I decided to do this properly I needed to watch all of these films again.  The only thing I could remember about this film was that Joanne Woodward was very good and there was a scene where she was running down the street.  That was it.  I thought it was a good film, but I couldn’t be certain after all this time.  As it turns out I was wrong.  It is a very good film, anchored by a marvelous performance by Woodward.

Woodward is a dowdy teacher, the daughter of a funeral home owner who has never managed to escape either the small town she lives in or the mother she lives with.  Her life not only lacks romance, it lacks passion for anything and seems to lack life itself.  Over the course of the film, she slowly manages to come to life.  Part of this is inspired by the lesbian attraction from her closest friend, played very well by Estelle Parsons, and the church group that Parsons drags her to.  The other is the arrival in her life of a man she had known briefly as a boy, having come with her father to attend to the death of his brother.

In lesser hands, this still wouldn’t amount to much.  But with the solid direction from Paul Newman (his directorial debut), a very well-written script and a pitch perfect performance by Woodward (perhaps helped by the direction from her husband of over a decade), all of this amounts to a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

 

Streisand was a star but the film was just too long and boring

 

Funny Girl

  • Director:  William Wyler
  • Writer:  Isobel Lennart  (from her play)
  • Producer:  Ray Stark
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Barbra Streisand, Omar Sharif, Walter Pidgeon, Kay Medford
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Actress (Streisand), Supporting Actress (Medford), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Score of a Musical Picture – Original or Adaptation, Song – Original to the Picture (“Funny Girl”)
  • Oscar Points:  240
  • Length:  155 min
  • Genre:  Musical
  • Box Office Gross:  $58.50 mil  (#1  –  1968)
  • Release Date:  19 September 1968
  • MPAA Rating:  G
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #52  (year)  /  #390  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress  (Streisand)
  • Nighthawk Points:  35

The Film:  She wasn’t ever gorgeous.  I admit to finding Barbra Streisand oddly appealing, but gorgeous is, I don’t think, a word that really anyone would use to describe her.  But there’s no question that she stepped onto the screen, walked into that hallway, looked in that mirror and announced the presence of a star.  She was smart and funny, she could sing (she couldn’t really dance, but that’s probably more a function of playing Fanny Brice than her own talent) and she could act.  She combined slapstick comedy with a Broadway musical voice and star presence.  There was no question that she was born to play the multi-talented Fanny Brice.  It’s too bad the film around her couldn’t have been as interesting as she was.

Just look at the difference between what the Academy nominated it for and my own awards.  I agree that Streisand was absolutely deserving of an Oscar nomination, but she comes in a clear second to Hepburn in my awards instead of tying (there has been much talk over the years of how Streisand, in spite of just having finished her first film, was already an Academy member and voted for herself – thus pushing her into the tie with Hepburn).  But a Best Picture nomination seems to imply that Academy voters thought it was a great film and it is nothing of the sort (it was wisely not nominated for Director or Screenplay).  The lack of Director and Screenplay nominations were a big tip-off.  In the stretch from 1956 to 1974 look at the films that managed to earn a Best Picture nomination (voted on by the entire membership of the Academy), but not Director or Screenplay:  The 10 Commandments, Auntie Mame, The Alamo, Fanny, The Music Man, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Longest Day, Cleopatra, The Sand Pebbles, Doctor Dolittle, Funny Girl, Hello Dolly, Nicholas and Alexandra and The Towering Inferno.  Of all of those, only The Music Man really belonged in the Best Picture race and the list includes some of the worst films ever nominated.  The mind-boggling thing about those films is that nearly all of them are overlong, bloated and fairly boring; yet, somehow all of them except Nicholas and Alexandra managed to get nominated for Best Editing.  That is the worse sin in many of these cases and the nomination for Best Editing for Funny Girl is the worst nomination of 1968 – it seems to just go on forever, and then keeps going for a while more (yet, also managed to have a sequel with the exact same problem – the two films watched together would take 5 hours but seem like a week).  Kay Medford earned a nomination as Brice’s mother, but is more annoying than accomplished and isn’t in much of the very long film.  It was nominated for Best Cinematography; astounding since it doesn’t seem to contain a single interesting shot.  The Best Sound nomination is not completely off base, but given that the Academy couldn’t be bothered to nominate 2001 or The Battle of Algiers with their far superior mixing doesn’t say much.  Even the song “Funny Girl” isn’t all that good, especially not in the same year where if the Academy had any guts they could have nominated “Springtime for Hitler” (which in fact, did make the longlist, yet failed to earn an actual nomination).

There’s no question that Fanny Brice lead an interesting life and Streisand’s performance is really what keeps the film from slipping down ever lower.  Walter Pidgeon is completely wooden as Flo Ziegfeld, Omar Sharif contains none of the passion he had in Doctor Zhivago or Lawrence of Arabia, the direction by William Wyler is some of the worst of his long, storied career and the film itself just never really picks up.  A film should be more than just one good performance and some interesting numbers.  It suffers from the Hollywood need to take a Broadway musical and embellish and expand it upon the screen.  They should have cut a good half hour.  Then Streisand could really be the star rather than just the glue that holds the film together.

 

No ordinary love story - just a really stupid one

 

Romeo and Juliet

  • Director:  Franco Zeffirelli
  • Writer:  Franco Brusati  /  Masalino D’Amico  /  Franco Zeffirelli  (from the play by William Shakespeare)
  • Producer:  Anthony Havelock-Allen  /  John Brabourne
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Leonard Whiting, Olivia Hussey, Michael York
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Cinematography, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  175
  • Length:  138 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Shakespearean Tragedy)
  • Box Office Gross:  $38.90 mil  (#5  –  1968)
  • Release Date:  8 October 1968
  • MPAA Rating:  G  (later changed to PG)
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #56  (year)  /  #393  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none
  • Nighthawk Points:  0

The Film:  To Zefferilli’s credit, the film stars two actual teenagers.  They look the right age because they are the right age.  But to his detriment they aren’t particularly good.  Olivia Hussey isn’t particularly bad, and she is beautiful in just the right way, though not in the more luminous way in which Norma Shearer or Claire Danes would bring to the same role (and be more believable as someone who would inspire someone to renounce their family).  But perhaps she is beautiful enough to this Romeo, this fickle idiot of a kid who doesn’t seem to have a brain in his body.

There are three problems with Leonard Whitig’s performance as Romeo and two of them aren’t his fault.  If you know me, or read my piece on the Shearer version you’ll know that I am not a big fan of the play.  It has beautiful language and some really wonderful scenes, but the play works better when performed as a comedy that ridicules the idiocy of the characters (like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream).  Romeo is the worst of the lot, a fickle boy who can’t seem to decide what he wants.  He dies, but I’m not sure that I can count that as tragedy because I’m not certain that fickle idiocy counts as a tragic flaw.  His body and mouth act without getting permission from his brain first.  That’s why Hussey works – because this Romeo is even more fickle that some of the other versions.

The second problem is that Whitig just seems like a pretty boy and he bears a strong resemblance to Zac Efron.  I realize that is not his fault and that this film was made a generation before Efron was even born, but his lack of any charisma, his pathetic attempt at acting and his pretty boy looks combine to make him even seem kind of like Efron and that was almost a killing point for me this time around.

Because the third problem is that he is pretty bad.  In fact, I was stunned, watching this film again, that none of the performances are particularly good.  They’re British and they’re in a Shakespeare film and it is all dolled up to look like 16th Century Verona, but when you actually settle in to watch it, none of them are any good.  I’ll take Baz Luhrmann’s modern version with guns and television and helicopters any day because it is anchored in solid acting, especially from the two leads.

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