Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn and Wilfrid Hyde-White dressed to the nines in My Fair Lady (1964)

The 37th annual Academy Awards, for the film year 1964.  The nominations were announced on February 23, 1965 and the awards were held on April 5, 1965.

Best Picture:  My Fair Lady

  • Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
  • Mary Poppins
  • Becket
  • Zorba the Greek

Most Surprising Omission:  Night of the Iguana

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  A Hard Day’s Night

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #43

The Race: Two of the most critically acclaimed films of the year were early releases – Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, which opened in January and Becket, the adaptation of the hit play, which opened in March.  Their stars were also busy with other things, with Peter Sellers starring in the first two Pink Panther films and Richard Burton starring in John Huston’s film version of Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana.  But all of these films were just small fry compared to the two big films everybody was waiting for.  Jack Warner had spent a lot of money to bring My Fair Lady to the screen and in the process had dropped the star of the Broadway production, Julie Andrews.  Andrews, instead, was hired to be in Disney’s Mary Poppins.  The latter opened in summer and quickly became the biggest money-maker of the year and the second biggest of all-time behind Gone with the WindMy Fair Lady finally came out at Christmas to critical raves and big box office as well, coming in second to Mary Poppins.

Three days before the release of My Fair Lady, the National Board of Review chimed in.  They gave Lady the second slot in their top 10, reserving the top spot for Becket and increasing the Oscar chances of Zorba the Greek, which finished in the top 10 and won Best Actor.  When the New York Film Critics gave their awards a week later, it was My Fair Lady that reaped both Best Picture and Best Actor, with Best Director going to Stanley Kubrick for Strangelove.  Once the Golden Globes and Directors Guild had their say it looked there were front-runners.  They would be My Fair Lady (winner of Picture, Director and Actor at the Globes and winner of the DGA), Becket (winner of Picture – Drama and Actor – Drama at the Globes), Night of the Iguana, Dr. Strangelove and Mary Poppins.  Though Dr. Strangelove had failed to earn any Globe nominations and Mary Poppins had not been nominated for Best Director at the Globes, all of them had DGA nominations and Poppins and Iguana had both been nominated for Picture at the Globes.  When all of them were again nominated by the Writers Guild (with Becket, Strangelove and Mary Poppins winning the three awards), the nominees looked set.

The Results: Zorba the Greek turned out to be stronger than Night of the Iguana, besting it in Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay and Actor.  For only the second time, all five nominees were nominated for Director and for the first time they were all nominated for Adapted Screenplay.  The nominees had an unprecedented 48 combined nominations, and included three big budget color period pieces, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins and Becket which would be directly competing against each other for in 8 categories (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography (Color), Sound, Art Direction (Color), Costume Design (Color)).  My Fair Lady and Becket would even be going up against each other in another two categories (Actor and Supporting Actor).  Mary Poppins had the most nominations with 13, but Lady and Becket, with 12 each, had the better chances for a Picture win.

In the end, Dr. Strangelove would lost all of its nominations, Becket would win only Adapted Screenplay and Zorba would take home Supporting Actress as well as both of its black-and-white nominations.  My Fair Lady would best Mary Poppins and Becket in all of the other direct competitions except Editing, taking home Picture and Director among its 8 Oscars.  Mary Poppins would only manage to best Lady in Editing, while its other 4 Oscars would come from categories in which Lady failed to get nominated (Actress, Original Score, Special Visual Effects and Song).  Mary Poppins tied for second in nominations all-time, but Lady would walk away tied for fourth in wins and in the top 10 in points (with 565).

Oh, if only Jack Warner had cast Julie Andrews.

My Fair Lady

  • Director:  George Cukor
  • Writer:  Alan Jay Lerner  (from his play, adapted from the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw)
  • Producer:  Jack L. Warner
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Stanley Holloway, Gladys Cooper
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium, Actor (Harrison), Supporting Actor (Holloway), Supporting Actress (Cooper), Editing, Cinematography (Color), Scoring of Music – Adaptation or Treatment, Sound, Art Direction (Color), Costume Design (Color)
  • Oscar Points:  565  (#9 all-time at the time)
  • Length:  170 min
  • Genre:  Musical
  • Box Office Gross:  $72.00 mil  (#2  –  1964; #4 all-time upon original release)
  • Release Date:  25 December 1964
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #5  (year)  /  #169  (nominees)  /  #44  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Actor (Harrison), Supporting Actor (Holloway), Supporting Actress (Cooper), Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  255

The Film:  The first time I ever saw My Fair Lady was on the big screen, when it was remastered and re-released for its thirtieth anniversary.  I loved it.  I loved the songs, loved the look of the film, loved the film itself.  I own the film (on video) and the original soundtrack (the Broadway version with Julie Andrews, of course).  But watching it this time, what I was struck with were the flaws in the film.  I don’t mean the ridiculously dumb casting of Audrey Hepburn in the lead role.  The problem with the casting of Hepburn is not that she couldn’t sing the songs (let’s remember that Marni Nixon also dubbed Deborah Kerr in The King and I, a performance for which she was rightfully nominated for an Oscar).  The problem is that Eliza begins as this dumpy little guttersnipe and ends up a lady.  Audrey Hepburn, of course, is perfectly believable as a lady.  Not so much as a guttersnipe (in fact this is one of the problems with Sabrina as well – it’s just difficult to believe that Audrey Hepburn could ever be ignored like that).  What was so perfect about Julie Andrews (aside from her marvelous singing voice) was that she was believable as both.

No, there are other problems with the film.  The first is that it is all so obviously filmed in a studio.  Supposedly Joshua Logan was offered the film but that offer was withdrawn when he wanted to actually film parts of it in London.  I used to give the slight nod to My Fair Lady for Art Direction over Mary Poppins, but watching it again, Mary Poppins feels so much more authentic.  The obvious use of sets at all times was just a distraction.  But there are other problems as well.  The entire scene at the Ascot Gavette should have been drastically reduced.  I know it is designed to highlight that Eliza is not yet ready to be out in society but the scene is too long, too painful, and so ridiculously obviously a set.  Isn’t the point of filming a play that you can open things up?  Why do such a ridiculous set?  Then there is, of course, “Get Me to the Church on Time”, a nice song, but it seems to just go on forever and ever and ever.

My Fair Lady is still a wonderful film and a wonderful musical.  Rex Harrison is great (though shouldn’t have won over Peter Sellers or the non-nominated George C. Scott), the supporting performances are all delightful, the movie is well-made (but notice I didn’t nominate it for its Editing) and quite simply looks gorgeous.  But it’s not quite the masterpiece I first felt I saw in the theater.

I will end with a little joking aside here.  In my novel that has been making the rounds of people I have known for a good decade now, I have a little in-joke that no one ever gets.  I have a character who the main character is clearly in love with, yet in the end she goes off to marry a man who is nice and loves her, but isn’t as smart or as interesting.  He’s named Freddy.

It's not a question of how it didn't win. It's a question of how a film this subversive ever got nominated.

Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

  • Director:  Stanley Kubrick
  • Writer:  Stanley Kubrick  /  Terry Southern  /  Peter George  (from the novel Red Alert by Peter George)
  • Producer:  Stanley Kubrick
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium, Actor (Sellers)
  • Oscar Points:  170
  • Length:  95 min
  • Genre:  Comedy  (Black)
  • Box Office Gross:  $9.16 mil
  • Release Date:  29 January 1964
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #12  (nominees)  /  #15  (all-time)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Scott), Actor (Sellers), Supporting Actor (Hayden), Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction
  • Nighthawk Points:  530

The Film:  Of the 22 films that have earned my absolute top rating, not one of them is as badly made as Dr. Strangelove.  They all have better Cinematography, nearly all have better Sound, certainly they have better Visual Effects.  Dr. Strangelove, more than any other truly great film, is a triumph of substance over style.

That is not to say that Dr. Strangelove is badly made.  It has pretty good Cinematography and of the technical aspects, the only one lacking are the Visual Effects (the plane is so obviously a model placed in front of stock footage), but even that is probably on purpose.  It’s not intended to look even marginally real.  It is crisply edited, knowing exactly when to bounce back and forth between the various scenes and with, essentially three sets, manages to have art direction that is truly memorable.

But the true measure of this film is what it is saying and how it is saying it.  Certainly most people look back at 1964 and say that Dr. Strangelove clearly should have won Best Picture, in the same way they say that about Citizen Kane in 1941 and Raging Bull in 1980.  But at the time, was there any way it was going to win?  It’s truly stunning that it even got nominated.  Look at how much it ridicules America, American culture and the Cold War at the height of Cold War hysteria.  But somehow, even though Kubrick had never managed an Oscar nomination before (his The Killing and Paths of Glory are two of the best non-nominated films of all-time and the 6 nominations for Spartacus did not include one for him), he managed, with this wickedly dark comedy, to earn three of the film’s four nominations (he would repeat this feat an amazing three times, though for 2001 his third nomination was for Visual Effects, rather than Producer because it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture – ironically enough, that Visual Effects nomination earned him his only Oscar).

Does the plot really need to be covered here?  Is there anyone who loves film who has not seen this film?  How would that even be possible?  Every person I have talked to seriously about film not only has seen this, but with the possible exception of my mother, ranks it as one of the greatest films ever made.  Suffice it to say, General Jack D. Ripper has launched a nuclear attack against the Russians to destroy them before they can destroy America by tainting our precious bodily fluids.  President Muffley finds out about the plot from General Buck Turgidson and must decide whether to warn the Russians and whether to allow them to counter-attack.  In the end, one plane, piloted by Major King Kong makes it through and drops their bomb, ensuring worldwide destruction.

The insanity of war had already been perfectly shown in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, published a few years before, but Kubrick takes things to another level (and it must be said that his wonderfully ridiculous names and mix of extremely dark humor and war must have influenced Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which I wrote about just the other day).  Kubrick understands what makes things funny.  Roger Ebert puts it so perfectly: “A man wearing a funny hat is not funny. But a man who doesn’t know he’s wearing a funny hat … ah, now you’ve got something. The characters in Dr. Strangelove do not know their hats are funny.”  Kubrick understands that humor works best with straight people delivering lines that are utterly preposterous, but doing it with a completely straight face.

Most reviews of Dr. Strangelove focus on the brilliance of Peter Sellers and the three roles that he plays.  He must, in the same film, be a straight laced British captain dealing with a clearly insane general, the poor over-whelmed President dealing with the potential of nuclear armageddon and Dr. Strangelove himself, the odd German scientist working for the President.  He is brilliant in all three roles and easily was the best of the nominated actors, but the heart of the film lies in two performances that were not, in fact, nominated for Oscars.

The first is George C. Scott as General Turgidson.  He has to somehow play straight with some of the greatest lines in the film (“But he’ll see everything!  He’ll see the big board!”,  “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, but I do say not more than ten or twenty million killed tops, depending on the breaks.”).  He plays the role with a crazed intensity, but never quite over the top and in a distinguished career that includes Anatomy of a Murder, The Hustler and Patton, this might be his best performance.

The other is Sterling Hayden as General Ripper.  Somehow Hayden was never nominated for an Oscar.  Yet here he plays Ripper as if he’s the sanest man in the world when he is probably the looniest man in the bin.  With that cigar stuck in his mouth, he explains to Captain Mandrake about the great Commie conspiracy to weaken us through our “precious bodily fluids” (this part works so well because it really was a belief at the time that putting flouride in the water really was a Communist conspiracy).  In one of the weakest years in history for Best Supporting Actor, he somehow managed to not even get nominated, but it wasn’t really surprising.  He was always great, whether as the gang leader in The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing, or the crooked cop that Michael must kill in The Godfather and the Academy never learned to appreciate him.

What else can I possibly say?  I grew up in the heart of the Cold War, during the Reagan years, and discovering this film as a teenager, just before the Cold War drifted away, it seemed the perfect satirical comment.  It was stunning to realize how perfectly the entire world had been mocked some 25 years before and the rest of the world still hadn’t quite gotten the joke.  I’m glad the Academy at least managed to nominate it.  It was for those who love film to truly appreciate it.

the second Best Picture nominee I ever saw - in the theater in 1980

Mary Poppins

  • Director:  Robert Stevenson
  • Writer:  Bill Walsh  /  Don DiGradi  (from the novels by P.L. Travers)
  • Producer:  Walt Disney and Bill Walsh
  • Studio:  Disney
  • Stars:  Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium, Actress (Andrews), Editing, Cinematography (Color), Music Score – Substantially Original, Scoring of Music – Adaptation or Treatment, Sound, Art Direction (Color), Special Visual Effects, Costume Design (Color), Song (“Chim Chim Cher-ee”)
  • Oscar Points:  455
  • Oscar Note:  Walt Disney won 22 Oscars and was nominated for 46, but his nomination for Best Picture as Producer was the only nomination he ever received for a non-documentary feature film
  • Length:  139 min
  • Genre:  Children’s  (Musical)
  • Box Office Gross:  $102.30  (#1  –  1964; #2 all-time upon original release)
  • Release Date:  29 August 1964
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #77  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Andrews), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Costume Design, Makeup, Song (“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”), Song (“A Spoonful of Sugar”), Song (“Chim Chim Cher-ee”)
  • Nighthawk Points:  455

The Film:  Mary Poppins was an all-around triumph on every level.  It earned Walt Disney his first (and only) Oscar nomination for a feature film (until 1989, it was the only Best Picture nominee ever made by Disney).  It was the biggest box-office hit of the year and ended up the second highest grossing-film of all-time (at least until it was passed the next year by The Sound of Music).  It earned 13 Oscar nominations, at the time, tied for the second most in Academy history (it still holds the record for most nominations without winning Best Picture, though it is tied on that mark with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Fellowship of the Ring and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).  It even managed to win 5 Oscars, including Best Actress.  To do all of this is impressive.  To get this kind of overall appeal while being at heart, a kids movie, is most impressive.

The truth is that Mary Poppins deserves all of this. In fact, because I give it multiple nominations for Best Song, I actually give it 16 Nighthawk nominations (at this point the second-most behind The Wizard of Oz and still tied for fifth-most of all films).  I give it the Nighthawk Award for the song that everyone knows and loves – “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” even over all the incredible songs from A Hard Day’s Night. In a year with My Fair Lady, Harakiri and A Hard Day’s Night, it still ranks as my #2 film of the year.  Julie Andrews doesn’t win, but she does come in second, as does the script and the cinematography.

Mary Poppins, I think, might be one of those films that people grow out of and then grow back into.  I enjoyed it as a child, seeing it first in a theater in Manhattan Beach during its 1980 revival (at the time the only other Best Picture nominee I had seen was Star Wars).  When we got our first VCR in 1985, Mary Poppins was one of the first family videos purchased, even though all of us had kind of outgrown it by then.  But as I grew into adulthood, I began to appreciate everything it had to offer.  First, there is the wonderful performance by Julie Andrews.  Then there are the great supporting performances by David Tomlinson and Glynis Johns as Mr. and Mrs. Banks (they both just miss out on nominations).  There is the sumptuous cinematography that captures rooftop dancing, the dingy streets of London, as well as the bright lights of the nursery and the wonderful world of the sidewalk chalk drawings.  There is the wonderful art direction and costumes.  There are even the special effects, very good for their time (I especially love how Mary drifts in on the breeze, but then is lifted magically to make it over the gate).

But in the end, it comes down to the songs.  And the songs are magical in and of themselves.  Is there anyone who doesn’t know the songs?  And I’m not just talking about the three main staples of the film that I nominated, but also other classics like “Feed the Birds”, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” or “Step in Time.”

What I love, finally, is that Mary isn’t there to raise the children.  She isn’t there to make things perfect.  And she won’t stay for long.  She is there to make the children understand that their parents really do love them and to make the parents understand that there is nothing in the world that should be more important to them than those children.  And she’s right about that.

How could two such exciting actors make a film so dull?

Becket

  • Director:  Peter Glenville
  • Writer:  Edward Anhalt  (from the play by Jean Anouilh and Lucienne Hill)
  • Producer:  Hal B. Wallis
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, John Geilgud
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium, Actor (O’Toole), Actor (Burton), Supporting Actor (Geilgud), Editing, Cinematography (Color), Music Score – Substantially Original, Sound, Art Direction (Color), Costume Design (Color)
  • Oscar Points:  405
  • Length:  148 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Historical)
  • Box Office Gross:  $9.16 mil
  • Release Date:  11 March 1964
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #50  (year)  /  #388  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  I think of Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton as two of the people wronged most by the Academy.  They gave what were possibly the two best performances of the sixties (in Lawrence of Arabia and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), yet both lost the Oscar.  They are the two most nominated actors to never receive an Oscar (eight for O’Toole, seven for Burton).  They also happen to be truly great, intense actors who were also drinking buddies.  Heavy drinking buddies.

Given all of that, it seems like Becket should be a great film, filled with two incredibly intense performances.  But that wasn’t really the situation back in 1964.  O’Toole had only really done Lawrence of Arabia and hadn’t yet established himself as a bone fide star.  As for Burton, well he had been nominated twice back in the early fifties, but not since and was coming off the scandal (and disastrous performance) of Cleopatra.  And Becket is not really great work from either of them.  O’Toole is better, but he is really just gearing up for his much better performance as Henry II in The Lion in Winter and this seemed to be Burton’s warm-up for the much better performances that would earn him three more Oscar nominations by the end of the decade (all of them, by the way – The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Virginia Woolf and Anne of the Thousand Days – better than the performances that actually won the Oscar in those years).

If you don’t know much history or have never heard of The Canterbury Tales, here is the story in a nutshell.  Henry II is the king of England, a young king trying to hold his kingdom together while also trying to emphasize the power of the king over the power of the church.  He believes that the laws of the king must rule over the laws of the church.  To achieve that end, he appoints his friend, Thomas Becket, first to be Lord Chancellor, and later, to be Archbishop of Canterbury.  But Becket is pulled by devotion to the church and eventually the two part ways.  Becket flees to France (where he deals with John Geilgud, giving quite a good performance as the King of France), but eventually returns to England.  In a famous fit of rage, Henry asks if no one will rid him of this meddlesome priest and four knights travel to Canterbury and kill Becket, believing they are following the king’s wishes.  Of course, this is what inspired pilgrimages to Canterbury (and thus, Chaucer’s famous work) and Canterbury Cathedral is still one of the most famous buildings in England.

But what about the film?  Well, it earned 12 Oscar nominations but not a single Nighthawk nomination.  I thought O’Toole and Geilgud were pretty good (both just missed nominations), as were the costumes and sets (the same).  But Burton was curiously a bit flat, perhaps a reflection of the role more than anything, I didn’t think it was particularly well made, in terms of cinematography or editing, not particularly well-directed and I thought the film just went on forever and ever, a problem with the script.  It’s not a bad film, just a bit dull and lacking the energy that two such magnificent actors should have brought to it.  As I said, perhaps this was a warm-up, because they both were great throughout the rest of the decade.  Or maybe good drinking buddies like them just shouldn’t be in the same film.

Anthony Quinn dances for joy as his over-rated film gets nominated for Best Picture

Zorba the Greek

  • Director:  Michael Cacoyannis
  • Writer:  Michael Cacoyannis  (from the novel by Nikos Kazantzikis)
  • Producer:  Michael Cacoyannis
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Alan Bates, Anthony Quinn, Irene Papas, Lila Kedrova
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium, Actor (Quinn), Supporting Actress (Kedrova), Cinematography (Black-and-White), Art Direction (Black-and-White)
  • Oscar Points:  320
  • Length:  142 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Box Office Gross:  $9.00 mil
  • Release Date:  17 December 1964
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #85  (year)  /  #442  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  This is one of the disadvantages of coming in after cinema has been around for so long.  You’re not sure what might have been new and fresh and interesting and what was already old at the time.  We know that Psycho was ground-breaking, and even if we know what’s coming, the power of the scene is still phenomenal.  On the other hand, I don’t know if the story of a young man who goes abroad to be pushed into manhood by a free spirit from that other land was already a cliche by the time of Zorba the Greek.  I assume it was.  It seems like it was always a cliche.  But I can’t be certain so I can give a slight benefit of the doubt to the Academy for this one.

But the fact is that there is nothing particularly new or interesting about Zorba.  It does contain a good performance from Anthony Quinn, certainly the best leading performance of his long, distinguished career.  It also has a good performance from Lila Kedrova as the owner of the bar whom Quinn romances (she just misses out on my nominations, finishing sixth).  And certainly neither Alan Bates as the young man who, of course, will learn about life, and Irene Papas, as the beautiful widow he falls for, are good.  But the story is so boring.  In some ways it a sign of the times, of the new spirit of the sixties.  But it isn’t well-directed, the music is good, but always seems to be going on forever, it certainly isn’t well-written (it has almost every cliche you could possibly think of).  And the Oscars that the film won for its rather unimaginative cinematography and decent art direction are less signs of the quality of the film than of the fact that the Academy by this point desperately needed to do away with the distinctions between color and black-and-white films (it would take three more years).

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