Julie Andrews singing one of the few songs in The Sound of Music (1965) that doesn't make me want to slam my head into a wall

The 38th annual Academy Awards, for the film year 1965.  The nominations were announced on February 21, 1966 and the awards were held on April 18, 1966.

Best Picture:  The Sound of Music

  • Doctor Zhivago
  • Darling
  • A Thousand Clowns
  • Ship of Fools

Most Surprising Omission:  The Collector

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  The Pawnbroker

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #63

The Race: With Mary Poppins still making money and Julie Andrews about to win an Oscar, The Sound of Music was released in March of 1965 and very quickly became one of the biggest hits of all-time.  While critics were having a field day making fun of it (none more savage than Pauline Kael: “Whom could this operetta offend?  Only those of us who, despite the fact that we may respond, loathe being manipulated in this way and are aware of how cheap and ready-made are the responses we are made to feel.  We may become even more aware of the way we have been turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody-goody songs.”).  It was a sharp contrast to The Pawnbroker, with its gritty look and feel, incredible reviews and small box office.  With the advent of summer came Darling, a fashionable British film breaking through wtih reviews and box office.  At the same time was Cat Ballou, a comedic western with a double performance from Lee Marvin that was managing to wow the critics.  Marvin was again praised for Ship of Fools, though most of the praise for the film went to German star Oskar Werner.  But by Christmas time, the big film was Doctor Zhivago.  The new film from David Lean, winner of Best Picture and Director for his previous two films, instantly followed Sound of Music‘s box office success, becoming the third biggest film of all-time.

For once, the National Board of Review didn’t go first, instead pushing off their decision until January.  Instead, the New York Film Critics initiated awards season by giving Best Picture, Director and Actress to Darling.  When the NBR chimed in two weeks later, while there were prominent films in their top 10 list (including Zhivago, Music, Ship, Darling and the small comedy A Thousand Clowns), for Best Picture they made a surprise decision and went with the documentary The Eleanor Roosevelt Story.  In the meantime, the Golden Globes had announced their nominees and Zhivago lead the way with 5.  Following close behind with 4, including Picture and Director were The Sound of Music, The Collector and A Patch of BlueDarling picked up the final Director slot but, being a British film, had to make due with a nomination for Best English Language Foreign Film.  The Directors Guild were next and they simply added to the confusion, ignoring Lean and instead picking Robert Wise (The Sound of Music), John Schlesinger (Darling), Sidney Furie (The Ipcress File), Sidney Lumet (The Pawnbroker) and Elliot Silverstein (Cat Ballou).  The Writers Guild also left Zhivago off their lists, giving their awards to The Pawnbroker (Drama), A Thousand Clowns (Comedy) and The Sound of Music (Musical).  The Globes responded by giving Zhivago every award it was nominated for, including Picture, Director and Screenplay.

The Results: Doctor Zhivago and The Sound of Music lead the nominations with 10 apiece.  Ship of Fools was next with 8, but was missing the Best Director nomination that Darling received as one of its 5 noms.  A Thousand Clowns somehow managed to beat out all the other contenders in the Picture race.  With both Music and Zhivago directed by previous winners (Wise had won in 1961), both of them having been attacked by critics and both being overwhelming box-office hits, it came down to the final night.  But the Oscars and DGA had never disagreed on Best Director in the 17 year history of the DGA and Robert Wise would repeat his triumph.  This seemed to be enough to affect the final outcome and in the end, The Sound of Music would become the first film in 17 years to win Best Picture without a writing nomination while Zhivago would join a now four-way tie for second place with 5 wins without winning Best Picture (tied with Wilson, The King and I and Mary Poppins behind the 6 for A Place in the Sun).

the songs are already in my head threatening to make it explode

The Sound of Music

  • Director:  Robert Wise
  • Writer:  Ernest Lehman  (from the book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse)
  • Producer:  Robert Wise
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Peggy Wood
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Actress (Andrews), Supporting Actress (Wood), Editing, Cinematography (Color), Scoring of Music – Adaptation or Treatment, Sound, Art Direction (Color), Costume Design (Color)
  • Oscar Points:  425
  • Length:  174 min
  • Genre:  Musical
  • Box Office Gross:  $163.21 mil  (#1  –  1965;  #2 all-time upon original release)
  • Release Date:  2 March 1965
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #24  (year)  /  #344  (nominees)  /  #70  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Andrews)
  • Nighthawk Points:  35

The Film:  “So, now I’m up to 1965 which means I have to watch The Sound of Music,” I said.  “But you’ll get all those wonderful songs,” my mom replied.  “Mom, I hate the songs in The Sound of Music.”  That was how the conversation went the other day.  It’s never a good sign for how much you will enjoy a musical when you already know that you don’t like the songs.  To be fair, I don’t hate all the songs.  “Doe, a Deer”, is, of course, an absolutely wonderful song and one which is great for learning music.  “My Favorite Things” is a tolerable song.  After that, it doesn’t go very well and when my wife arrived home, the first thing I said to her was “I have to go in the office and listen to some music so I can get “Climb Every Mountain” out of my head.”

Is enjoyment of the songs a make it or break it point for how good a musical is?  Not necessarily.  I am not a huge fan of the songs from Cabaret (I actually like many of the songs that were cut from the play), but every time I watch it, I am more impressed with it as a film.  On the other hand, I am a big Andrew Lloyd Webber fan and my love for those songs can’t make me say that the film versions of Jesus Christ Superstar or Phantom of the Opera are particularly good.  So, I tried to ignore my personal feelings about the songs in The Sound of Music and look at it simply as a film.

It’s not all the great and is definitely way too long.  That’s the easy summation.  I could easily expand on that.  The script is so cloying and saccharine that the only acting performance that truly emerges unscathed is Julie Andrews, because she embraces that sickly sweetness so well.  It is over-directed, from those early shots of the mountains, to the later shots of the mountains (I am okay with straying from historical fact in films – they are films that are trying to tell a story after all, not documentaries, but I am amused by the notion that if the Von Trapps had actually escaped over the mountains near Salzburg they would climbed straight into Germany), to the ridiculously long versions of the songs.  You could easily cut a good half hour from the film without needing to touch the plot or even the sub-plots and you wouldn’t really have that much of an effect upon the actual songs (yet, somehow, this film won the Oscar for Best Editing).

Do I really need to establish the plot for people?  I mean, we’re talking about a film that was the second-largest grossing film of all-time upon its original release.  As noted above, when adjusted for inflation, it still ranks as third all-time.  I would think everyone knows it and that everyone knows the songs (much as I dislike them, they are memorable – I had forgotten how many damn songs from this film I could remember, from the major numbers down to things like “What Do You Do With a Problem Like Maria”, “The Lonely Goatherder” or “So Long, Farewell”).  But here is the simple story.  Maria, a novice nun who seems more in love with music than God, is sent away from her abbey to be the governess to the seven children of Captain Von Trapp.  She brings music back into the house, and, this being a happy musical and all, falls in love with the Captain, who falls in love with her.  They marry, the family becomes known for singing folk songs together as the threat of the Nazis hang over Austria.  They manage to make an escape from the Nazis (they want the Captain to be inducted into the German Navy) and climb over the mountains into Switzerland.

Unlike the other Best Picture winning Musicals of the era, like Gigi (based on the novels of Collette), West Side Story (adapted from Romeo and Juliet), My Fair Lady (adapted from Pygmalion) and Oliver (adapted from Oliver Twist), The Sound of Music, aside from the historical aspects of the story, is originally a musical and therein is the major problem with the story.  It is just a silly, saccharine love story about a governess who fell in love with the children and then the father.  It was really the songs that people went back to hear again and again (the soundtrack has never been out of print).  The film itself doesn’t really hold up as well.

Nobel Prize winning author, multiple Oscar winning director and it loses to The Sound of Music

Doctor Zhivago

  • Director:  David Lean
  • Writer:  Robert Bolt  (from the novel by Boris Pasternak)
  • Producer:  Carlo Ponti
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin, Tom Courtenay, Alec Guinness, Rod Steiger, Ralph Richardson
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay – Based on Material From Another Medium, Supporting Actor (Courtenay), Editing, Cinematography (Color), Music Score – Substantially Original, Sound, Art Direction (Color), Costume Design (Color)
  • Oscar Points:  420
  • Length:  197 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Epic Romance)
  • Box Office Gross:  $111.72 mil  (#2  –  1965;  #3 all-time upon original release)
  • Release Date:  22 December 1965
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #71  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Sharif), Supporting Actor (Courtenay), Supporting Actor (Steiger), Supporting Actor (Guinness), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Sound Editing, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  725  (#9 all-time)

The Film:  I moved on to watching Doctor Zhivago after having spent years admiring Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia.  I knew that it had won 5 Oscars and been nominated for 10, that it was an epic film from the biggest director of epics and that it had been a huge box office success.  That’s what I knew in those days before the IMDb.  Inside Oscar mentioned a couple of rave reviews and then mentioned in brief that the New York critics weren’t very fond of it.

It would only be later that I would learn other things.  That it had swept the Golden Globes – the first film to do so, winning Picture, Director, Screenplay (in the first year it was awarded), Actor and Score.  But that it had been savaged by a number of prominent critics.  The review from the New York Times, though included in its book of the 1000 Best Films is complimentary on the technical aspects but not very fond of the overall film and of course Pauline Kael hated it.  But by the time I learned all that I had seen it several times and was stunned that it hadn’t won Best Picture.  It certainly was, to me, easily the best film of 1965.  That it should lose Best Picture and Best Director to the sickening sweetness of The Sound of Music seemed ridiculous.

It still does, in spite of what I know about the critical views.  After all, Kael hated The Sound of Music so much that the legend grew that she was fired from McCall’s for her negative review (she was actually fired later for continually panning everything).  And certainly critical opinion didn’t matter that much to the Academy – they had, after all, nominated Mutiny on the Bounty and Cleopatra.  What hurt more perhaps was the lack of a nomination for Lean from the Directors Guild (one of the rare moments of utter bewilderment from the more usually reliable guild).  But it had won all those Globes and was riding high.  Perhaps The Sound of Music was just too much – one of the biggest films of all-time at a time when musicals were at their peak (five Best Picture wins in eleven years) and Lean had won too much.  I can’t conceive of any other reason.

Because The Sound of Music is a decent film while Doctor Zhivago is a great film.  It is great, not just for the look of the film, though that this is incredible.  There was no question that it earned the Oscars for cinematography, art direction and costume design (the Ice Palace scene is still one of the most impressive pieces of art direction ever put on film).  Lean had kept the main part of the crew together after Lawrence.  So, while people were hyping the combination of Lean, Sharif and writer Robert Bolt, it was really the Oscar-winning trio of Maurice Jarre (music), Freddie Young (cinematography) and John Box (production design) who would all win Oscars for Zhivago to go with their Oscars for Lawrence that are most remembered, even if people don’t know their names.  After all, it is the music (“Lara’s Theme” is still one of the most widely known musical scores), the cinematography and the sets that people still talk about.

All of this, though, is unfair to the actors.  Omar Sharif won the Globe but didn’t even get nominated for the Oscar (the first time since 1959 and wouldn’t happen again until 1998).  Tom Courteney as the young rebel Pasha, was easily the best supporting actor of the year and there is very fine work from Alec Guinness and Rod Steiger as well.  Because Sharif wasn’t nominated, because Julie Christie mainly stands around and looks beautiful and because Geraldine Chaplin doesn’t do much (though, in a response to Roger Ebert’s review, Chaplin is on the record as saying that she felt Tonya was devoted to her husband who she viewed as a great artists – the same way her mother was singularly devoted to her father in her belief in him as a great artist).

But this is a simple love story told on an epic scale and it seems that is what people object to.  Perhaps they don’t think the story merits the size.  But how do those same people feel about Gone with the Wind?  After all, there are certainly similarities in the use of the larger political and historical story as a background for the love story amidst war and destruction.  It’s just that Zhivago has the greatness of David Lean behind it and is well-written as opposed to the mindless drivel in Wind.

Darling (1965) - the film that earned Julie Christie the part of Gertrude 31 years later


  • Director:  John Schlesinger
  • Writer:  Frederic Raphael  (from an idea by Frederic Raphael  /  John Schlesinger  /  Joseph Janni)
  • Producer:  Joseph Janni
  • Studio:  Embassy
  • Stars:  Julie Christie, Dirk Bogarde, Laurence Harvey
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly For the Screen, Actress (Christie), Costume Design (Black-and-White)
  • Oscar Points:  275
  • Length:  128 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  3 August 1965
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #5  (year)  /  #240  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress (Christie), Art Direction
  • Nighthawk Points:  225

The Film:  In early 1996, when Kenneth Branagh was casting his film version of Hamlet, he was considering who should play Gertrude.  Considering the Freudian interpretations of the play, he thought it would be good to cast someone who had been considered one of the most beautiful women in England when he was a child.  One thought of the film Darling ended up with Julie Christie (rather rightfully) joining the cast.

In terms of both Oscar success and Nighthawk Award success, Darling was the right film at the right time.  Darling earns a Nighthawk nomination for Best Picture mainly because it is in a weak year.  It is the weakest Nighthawk nominee since 1948 and no film after it has been as weak.  It wins the Nighthawk Award for Best Actress, but wouldn’t have won any other year in the 60’s.  It earns both of them, but it is the product of being in the right time and the right place as much as its quality (make no mistake – it is a very good film and Christie is excellent – but again, it succeeds mostly because of timing).  It is the same with the Academy.  It broke through to the Best Picture race in a time when the censors were relaxing and more sex was allowed and enjoyed on-screen (though it probably still wouldn’t have it made it through had it not been a British film) and Christie won Best Actress partially because she took the world by storm (also starring in Doctor Zhivago probably helped), but also because the Academy had awarded Julie Andrews and her sweetness the year before and there wasn’t that much other competition.  Likewise, in the Best Original Screenplay race it was up against two Foreign films, an action film and a light-weight comedy.

But it was also helped by being an interesting film at an interesting time.  It is well directed by John Schlesinger and made him a big-name director (he would win his own Oscar four years later for Midnight Cowboy), it was very well made, with good cinematography, solid art direction and interesting costumes that were the height of British fashion.  Then there is the story of Diana, the lonely beautiful woman who becomes a model, then a star, then a princess (it is so weird to watch it and hear her referred to as “Princess Diana”).  Part of what makes her so interesting is that the two men in her life, Dirk Bogarde and Laurence Harvey, are such utter cads that she gains our sympathy just for enduring them, but there is also the luminous performance of Christie.  For a while it looked like Christie had peaked way too early.  She only made six films in the 70’s and disappeared further in the 80’s, but her rebirth began with Hamlet, included an Oscar nomination the next year for Afterglow and her amazing performance in 2007’s Away from Her returned her to a place at the top of acting royalty, exactly where she landed back in 1965.

A Thousand Clowns (1965) - one of those little movies that could

A Thousand Clowns

  • Director:  Fred Coe
  • Writer:  Herb Gardner  (from his play)
  • Producer:  Fred Coe
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Jason Robards, Barbara Harris, Martin Balsam, Barry Gordon
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay – Based on Material From Another Medium, Supporting Actor (Balsam), Scoring of Music – Adaptation or Treatment
  • Oscar Points:  160
  • Length:  118 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • Release Date:  13 December 1965
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #11  (year)  /  #267  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Balsam)
  • Nighthawk Points:  70

The Film:  A Thousand Clowns is one of those films that I embraced the first time I saw it (sometime around the age of 20) and now I find to be a bit painful.  It is funny and enjoyable and I like its carefree spirit, but I also see how much it wants to thumb its nose at things without ever really giving the things it is thumbing its nose at a chance to defend themselves.  If there is a contemporary film that it reminds of it would be Away We Go, but without quite the contempt for the rest of the world (A.O. Scott perfectly encapsulated that film with the final lines of his review in The New York Times: “Does it sound as if I hate this movie? Don’t be silly. But don’t be fooled. This movie does not like you.”).  In Away We Go, the characters, who pretty much disdain most people, travel around the country and find all sorts of people who play right into their expectations.  The problem with the film is that all of the people they run into are gross caricatures.  They resemble nothing like a real person.  A Thousand Clowns has some of that same problem.  It has a central character, Murray, a talented writer, who thumbs his nose at society, who is unemployed pretty much by choice, who is sickened by what he sees in society.  Of course, we see the kind of people he is forced to interact with (two social workers there to check up on him because he is the guardian for his nephew as well as his agent brother and the television clown who Murray spent years writing for).  None of them bear any resemblance towards normal people.  They are not quite into the shade of caricatures, but they are close.

So, on the one hand we have Murray.  He is played in a very charming performance by Jason Robards as a man who is fed up with society (he begins the film by standing in the street and yelling at this neighbors in a charming way).  He is bringing up his nephew in a rather unique way, but now the authorities have been brought in by his nephew’s school to see if he is fit to be a guardian and he suddenly has to conform to society’s notion of an adult, mature individual.  Along the way, he charms the female social worker into a relationship.  We like Murray and we can understand his issues with society (part of what makes the film work is that this isn’t rage, it’s just frustration and he plays it all as frustration rather than any anger).

But watching it again at an older age, I can see how the film wants to bring us to Murray’s viewpoint (even though, by the end, he has done what is necessary for the sake of his nephew).  It wants us to be frustrated and it wants us to sympathize with him, to the point of making fools of any character who opposes Murray.  I can see through that now and I have a child of my own and I don’t fall for the film like I once did.  I also can see, like I did the first time, that it’s not all that well made, certainly with nothing much to brag about outside of the script (which is charming and smart, if manipulative), Robards’ performance (Barry Gordon is fairly annoying as the nephew; Barbara Harris is nice as the love interest, but a bit bland; Martin Balsam somehow won the Oscar, which stunned me both times I watched it in that he’s not that great and not in that much and Balsam himself said he thought it was the Academy rewarding him for slighting him for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but I didn’t think he was that great in that either) and the art direction (Murray’s apartment is really a wonderful set).  Outside of that, it is what it is, a charming movie that is enjoyable, but is best watched when you’re still young enough to fall for it.

the 1965 movie poster for Ship of Fools

Ship of Fools

  • Director:  Stanley Kramer
  • Writer:  Abby Mann  (from the novel by Katharine Ann Porter)
  • Producer:  Stanley Kramer
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Oskar Werner, Vivien Leigh, Simone Signoret, Lee Marvin, Jose Ferrer, Michael Dunn
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay – Based on Material From Another Medium, Actor (Werner), Actress (Signoret), Supporting Actor (Dunn), Cinematography (Black-and-White), Art Direction (Black-and-White), Costume Design (Black-and-White)
  • Oscar Points:  295
  • Length:  149 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  29 July 1965
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #69  (year)  /  #439  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  Take a bunch of people.  Make sure they cover a wide diverse range.  Throw them together.  Shake.  There, you have a film.

It’s actually not quite as easy as that, at least if you want to make a good film.  But this isn’t a good film.  This is a collection of cliches, a mediocrity barely saved from being a truly bad film by a few performances worth remembering.  The first is Oskar Werner as the doctor aboard the ship.  He provides some pathos to this story.  The others are the two wonderful performances by the lead actresses, Vivien Leigh and Simone Signoret.  They are both good performances that remind us of how good those two actresses can be.  They provide some emotional resonance.

It’s too bad that the story and the rest of the actors let everything else down.  The story is about a group of people on-board a ship heading from Mexico to Germany in the 1930’s.  It is intended as a large parable about the folly of man and the rise of Nazism in the years between the wars, but ultimately, it fails because the story just isn’t that interesting, the dialogue is banal and boring and most of the acting is fairly uninteresting.  It doesn’t even succeed particularly well on a technical level.  The art direction is decently done, but the cinematography is very unimpressive, especially for an Oscar winner (one of the clear signs in the 1960’s that the black-and-white and color distinctions among the technical awards needed to be done away with) and the direction is fairly sloppy (at least the Academy didn’t give it that nomination).

I’m struggling with finding different ways to describe the boredom of seeing the film.  I saw it once, years ago and was quite bored with it.  Watching it again, I was even more bored.  I spent some two and a half hours waiting for the one interesting thing that happens (a death that is intended to be poignant but really just seems pointless) and agonizing over how boring it is.  There we go.  Four different uses of the verb “to bore” in one paragraph.  I think I have summed up the movie quite succinctly.