Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 13
I’ve embarked on an EPIC challenge to watch every movie ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. To do so, I’ve put all the years from 1929 to 2020 into a bucket and I’m pulling out years one by one to determine what movies to watch.
PART 13: 1968
In the Heat of the Night (winner)
Bonnie and Clyde
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
The Graduate: My family has a running joke that we all suffer from supposed-to-osis, or doing things because that’s what we’re supposed to do. Go to college, get a job, get married, have a baby. It’s the path that society has carved out for us – the guiding light to what is deemed a “successful life”. For the lucky among us, life is a journey where you take it all as it comes, where success isn’t measured by what you do or who you marry or how many kids you have. But for some, supposed-to-osis is all too real, and success is very much determined by your wealth, your social status, and your willingness to accept your fate.
With a high-quality education behind him and a brilliant future ahead of him, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is distraught. At a party celebrating his college graduation, Ben is stuck in the living room of his upper-class suburban home, forced to entertain his parents and their friends when all he wants to do is just go up to his room and “think about his future.” How introspective.
At the party, Benjamin is surrounded by successful men offering successful tips for success. Go into plastics. Invest in real estate. Luckily for Benjamin, his wealthy parents are all too happy to help plan out his future, from finding him a job to suggesting he take out Elaine Robinson, the daughter of his father’s business partner. All logical next steps in the life of a wealthy college grad. But for Benjamin, this life is nothing but murmuring emptiness. People talking without speaking. People hearing without listening. When supposed-to-osis has you fearing adulthood, whatever is a privileged white boy to do but turn to the only distraction he knows – sex.
Weak and scared of losing his youth and freedom, Benjamin falls prey to the seductions of Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), a woman twice his age, dealing with the death of her own purpose, value and identity. Swathed in leopard print, she has a feline quality to her, moving quickly, intentionally, purposefully (like a cougar 😉). She lures Benjamin into her home, teases him with alcohol and stuck zippers, and the two begin an affair that is nothing if not awkward. Mrs. Robinson talks to Ben like a child, while Benjamin refuses to see Mrs. Robinson as an actual person. He never calls her by her first name (even calling her Mrs. Robinson in bed) and the two share little to no sexual chemistry. They’re just two sad people, using each other to distract themselves from their own realities.
As is the case with most affairs, one party is often left wanting more – in this case, Benjamin. He wants conversation, pillow talk, to get to know Mrs. Robinson on a personal level, but she wants none of it. Desire is all she's after - so Ben moves on to the next best thing, Mrs. Robinson's daughter, Elaine.
Elaine and Benjamin have a rollercoaster romance that ends in heartbreak when Elaine accepts the marriage proposal of another man (after already agreeing to marry Benjamin). However, Ben breaks up the wedding, declares his love for Elaine, and the two run off together, wide-eyed and terrified when faced with the uncertainty of their actions.
Directed by Mike Nichols, The Graduate is one of those movies that you may not enjoy watching, but you can certainly admire. It was nominated for several awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, which it won, Best Actor (Hoffman) and Best Actress (Bancroft). It was the highest grossing film of 1967, making more than $800 million in today’s dollars and remains one of the best coming-of-age movies ever made. It shot Dustin Hoffman into stardom and of course brought to light the amazing music of Simon and Garfunkel.
In the end, supposed-to-osis seemed to get the best of Benjamin. Did he really love Elaine? I’d argue no…but he chose her because he was supposed to. His parents convinced him of it from the start. As the two sit on the bus, Elaine still in her wedding dress, the camera catches their dread, their fear, their uncertainty, echoed in the wells of silence. And as the screen fades to black, we know the worst is yet to come for these two...as the film's conclusion becomes the beginning of their end.
In the Heat of the Night: Guess who’s coming to solve your murder…
The streets of Sparta, Mississippi are hot and humid. As officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates) patrols the quiet neighborhood, he stumbles upon the dead body of Philip Colbert, a traveling businessman looking to open a factory in town.
On the command of his bigoted, bubble gum-chewing police chief, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), Wood visits the local pool hall and train depot looking for suspects when he stumbles upon Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a well-dressed, wealthy black man who just so happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m sure you can guess what happens next…
Unsurprisingly, Tibbs is brought in for questioning, though neither Wood nor Gillespie have any reason to suspect him of the murder. He was nowhere near the scene at the time and was just in town briefly visiting his mother. Furthermore, Gillespie comes to learn that Tibbs is actually a police detective from Philadelphia – and he just so happens to be their best homicide expert. Oh how things have(n’t) changed.
In an instant, Tibbs goes from suspect to threat, which made this one of my favorite scenes in the film. As a suspect, Tibbs meant nothing to Gillespie. He had a one-way ticket to the jailhouse just because of the color of his skin. However, as soon as it becomes known that Tibbs is a detective, there’s a change in the air. Not only is Tibbs higher up the ladder than Gillespie, he’s also educated and has better grammar. He makes more money than Gillespie, even as a Black man, and is a better dresser. This new Tibbs is more of a threat to Gillespie (and his pride) than when he was just a suspect – and THAT is the real crux of the racial divide in this movie.
Gillespie eventually concedes his error (though he never apologizes), and asks Tibbs if he wouldn’t mind taking a look at the body before leaving town. Upon first glance, Tibbs makes several key observations that the small-minded, inexperienced locals overlooked. His experience and knowledge go unnoticed by most, but not Gillespie. After much convincing, Tibbs agrees to stay in Mississippi and help Gillespie and his team solve the murder.
Made during a time of insane racial upheaval, In the Heat of the Night has a rougher edge than other films of the era. Tibbs and Gillespie never really become friends, but they regard each other as human beings, which you could argue is actually more of a triumph considering the time and place. As each man gradually warms up to the other, it becomes evident that Gillespie just might be the most understanding bigot in a town clinging to old-fashioned hatred and intolerance.
As for Tibbs, he remains even-tempered and stoic, even in a place that refuses to accept him. He only looses his temper twice – once when he’s tired of being called ‘boy’ and utters the now infamous, “They call me Mister Tibbs!”, when asked what they call him back home; and again where Tibbs is slapped by a white plantation owner, Eric Endicott (Larry Gates) and Tibbs slaps him back. It’s a shocking moment that seems raw and unrehearsed, mostly because director Norman Jewison insisted the actors actually strike each other. Moreover, the most telling thing is how physically and emotionally shaken Endicott is after being hit. “There was a time when I could’ve had you shot [for that],” Endicott threatens. But he knows that time is long gone.
In reality, it would be nice to think that America has come a long way in the past 50 years, but I don’t think I can be that generous. Though this was the first major Hollywood production to honestly portray the topic of racism, it still failed to award Poitier with the Oscar nomination he so rightfully deserved – a problem the Academy still has to this day.
That’s not to say that Steiger wasn’t deserving of his win, because he absolutely was. His masterful portrayal of a man just smart enough to know he’s neither as talented as Tibbs nor as ignorant as the people around him was one that even Poitier himself praised. Steiger is in full control of his instrument, and you almost feel for the guy as he struggles with his demons and learns to overcome them.
All in all, In the Heat of the Night would walk away with five Oscars – Best Picture, Best Actor (Steiger), Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound. It grossed 12x its production budget and was an auditory joy with a score by Quincy Jones and several songs sung by Ray Charles.
As our country continues to wrestle with issues of race, bigotry and human rights, In the Heat of the Night sadly remains as relevant today as it did more than 50 years ago. I was surprised at how much I loved this movie and would easily rank it up there with Black KKKlansman and Loving as one of my favorite racial justice stories. It didn’t end happily, per se, but these types of movies never do. Rather it gave us a lesson – despite time and place, despite color and status, we’re all capable of respecting our fellow man.
Doctor Dolittle: Man, kids’ movies in the 1960s were a serious time commitment. Did kids really sit in a theater for 2 and a half hours and watch this ‘Grand Zoomanitarian’ grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals? Of course they didn’t…in fact, no one did.
Set in the fictional village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, which is easily the most British-sounding storybook land I’ve ever heard of, Doctor Dolittle is a whimsy, albeit drag, of a film about an eccentric English doctor-turned veterinarian who can talk to the animals. Like, actually have conversations with them. He speaks everything from goldfish to Pushmi-Pullyu, which – for those interested – is a 2-headed llama that never poops, apparently.
Based on a series of books, Doctor Dolittle really jam-packed as much as it could into its allotted timeframe; however, it was waaay too much content to tell a cohesive story.
The film begins in our quaint English village, where Doctor Dolittle (Rex Harrison) is sick of treating humans. Realizing he’s much better with four-legged patients, he decides to become a veterinarian and fills his home with creatures great and small. With the help of his talking parrot, Polynesia – who speaks 2,000 animal languages, by the way – the doctor learns how to converse with field mice, rhinos and everything in between.
The first 30 minutes or so of this film are actually quite fun. A gaggle of eccentric characters, both human and beast, make for a good time and the Oscar-winning song, “If I Could Talk to the Animals” includes funny rhymes that kids were sure to love: “If friends said, ‘Can he talk in crab or maybe pelican?’ You’d say, ‘Like hell-he-can’, and you’d be right!”.
But then it falls apart.
Dolittle becomes obsessed with finding the illusive Great Pink Sea Snail – why, we don’t know – and must find a way to finance his trip. A friend sends him a 2-headed llama, which Dolittle decides to sell to a local circus for money. The ringmaster, played by a very jovial Richard Attenborough, buys it and the two men become partners so Dolittle can earn a little cash on the side.
It’s here where Dolittle meets Sophie, a heartbroken seal who misses her husband back home. He agrees to help her escape by dressing her in woman’s clothing, then throwing her into the sea…but not before serenading her with a love song. Yup. A LOVE SONG.
Anyway, his chugging of the seal into the water was witnessed by a few thugs, and suddenly Dolittle is arrested for murder. This movie has it all! Exploitation, bestiality and murder! And let’s throw in a little romance, too – just for shits and giggles…
Throughout the movie, Dolittle is accompanied on his adventures by his friend Matthew Mugg (Anthony Newley), who is fawning over Emma Fairfax (Samantha Eggar), who only has eyes for the Doctor. Poor Matthew has a whole song about how he loves Emma, but Emma only seems to love Dolittle – who is old enough to be her grandfather – so the whole thing is just weird.
After a FREAKING INTERMISSION, Dolittle is acquitted for murder, but sentenced to life in the looney bin because of his ability to converse with animals. Matthew and Emma help him escape, and they all board a boat and sail to a floating island in search of this freaking snail. We’re now 2 hours into this long-ass movie and there’s no end in sight. They meet hostile natives on the island, who turn out to be nothing more than literature-loving thespians, and finally find the snail they’ve been searching for, only for nothing to come of it. As one reviewer put it, “The whole production is filled with things that are supposed to be funny without actually being funny and supposed to be touching without actually being touching.”
I was surprised to learn this movie was a musical, but the songs are almost forgettable in this long and winding tale. Harrison is a bit smug in this role – not unlike his Oscar-winning performance as Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady two years before. Most of the songs are so complicated and wordy that the cast has no choice but to engage in speak-singing, just to get all the words out in beat with the music.
Since Doctor Dolittle opted for real animal actors, the production of this film was a nightmare. Most animals were not well behaved and cast and crew were bit by dogs, ducks, birds and chimps. Squirrels chewed through scenery and goats were caught munching on scripts. In total, more than 1,200 live animals were used in the film, all of which required understudies, so you can imagine how it sounded – and smelled – on set.
Despite the numerous Oscar nominations it received, mostly because 20th Century Fox wined and dined the Academy into giving the film attention, Doctor Dolittle was a box office bomb. It cost $18 million to produce in 1967 and only recouped $9 million when all was said and done. It basically destroyed Harrison’s film career, almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox, and was one of the last giant-scale musicals of the 1960s.
Perhaps this was one of those movies that was better for those who grew up watching it, but I struggled with this one. I really wanted to like it, I really did, but I just couldn’t get into it. With real animals, an Oscar-winning actor, amazing costumes and excellent location shots, Doctor Dolittle had the illusion of prestige, but it was just too easy to see through the curtain on this one.
Bonnie and Clyde: Open the trending section of Netflix, Hulu, or any number of streaming services and one thing will become abundantly clear: Americans love a good true crime story.
From Ted Bundy to the Tiger King, we love championing the anti-hero. We romanticize them, sometimes even sympathize with them. And no where is that truer than in the story of Bonnie and Clyde.
Starring Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow and Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker, Bonnie and Clyde is all together a romantic, tragic, comedic and dramatic story of the real-life robbers who stole from banks and grocery stores during the Great Depression. It also stars Gene Wilder in his film debut and set the bar (quite high, I might add) for all the true crime stories to come.
The film starts at the beginning of the Bonnie and Clyde story, when a young Bonnie, radiating heat and sexuality, looks out her bedroom window to see a man preparing to steal her mother’s car. It’s Texas in the Great Depression and times are tough, after all.
She confronts the stranger, a charming baby-blue-eyed babe named Clyde Borrow, and instantly becomes aroused by his life of crime. Before even learning his name, she convinces him to perform an armed robbery and, just like that, the two are on the run, with bigger crimes still to come.
Eventually Bonnie and Clyde team up with C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), who acts as their getaway driver, as well as Clyde’s brother, Buck Barrow (Gene Hackman) and his wife, Blanche (Estell Parsons). These five continue to wreak havoc across the Great Plains and become celebrity criminals along the way.
What sets Bonnie and Clyde apart from other gangster movies like Public Enemies and Easy Rider is that this crime-happy couple knows that their fate involves an untimely death. This fear haunts the movie through dark shadows and cleverly placed characters. When the gang kidnaps a young Eugene Grizzard (Gene Wilder), Bonnie learns he’s an undertaker and they kick him out of the car. In another scene, Bonnie visits her mother and begins fantasizing a life with Clyde that she knows will never happen. Even sadder, her mother knows it, too: “You live within a mile of me, honey, and you’ll be dead.”
Of course, it’s no surprise by now that Bonnie and Clyde do indeed meet an untimely death. As the two try to make an escape, they discover they’re surrounded by police and a horrifically prolonged hail of bullets rains down on them. It seems to go on for eternity yet doesn’t last a second more than it should. In real life, more than 160 bullets were shot at the duo, enough to cut Clyde’s shirt in half and cause more than 15 entrance wounds on each of their bodies.
The saddest part of this scene, though, happens right before the shootout – when Bonnie and Clyde realize they’re going down and, for a split second, look into each other’s eyes for the last time. It’s a brilliant example of film editing and a moment that eternalizes their friendship even after death.
Though this film is based on a true story, it does take some liberties with the crimes of Bonnie and Clyde. In the film, the couple robs banks, since banks are stealing from the farmers and the poor man (sort of like Robin Hood, I guess?). However, the real story showed Bonnie and Clyde focusing more on low-hanging fruit, like grocery stores and gas stations.
I would imagine this was a conscious decision, as this film completely embodies the spirit of rebellion of the 1960s. The Boomer Generation was noticeably anti-establishment, and this movie does not turn away from that. In one scene, Clyde even offers a Black man a gun to shoot holes in the foreclosure sign erected by the bank that has evicted him. These criminals-turned-folk-heroes threw up a big, defiant finger to the forces of law and order and somehow thought their actions against “The Man” were justified.
Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, Bonnie and Clyde would win only two: Best Supporting Actress (Parsons) and Best Cinematography. Yet it’s become a pinnacle movie in the genre of true crime. The Barrow Gang, as they would come to be called, came across as champions for the under trodden, taking from the rich and saving the poor. It helped reduce these larger-than-life criminals to human beings, which is maybe why we feel such sympathy for them.
But the best part of Bonnie and Clyde is that it’s a total blast to join these two on their criminal escapades. Not only are Beatty and Dunaway a great pair, but you really can’t ignore the fact that there must be some fun in doing the wrong thing.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: In 1967, interracial marriage was illegal in more than 15 states in the US. Even in the states that allowed it, public opinion of mingling between the races was still not favorable.
Just a couple weeks after filming wrapped on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a sweet film about a white woman falling in love with a black man, the Supreme Court struck down the anti-miscegenation laws in the landmark case, Loving v. Virginia, making this film groundbreaking for the time. Starring Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and Katharine Houghton (Hepburn’s real-life niece), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was one of the first movies to present interracial marriage in a positive light and, though semi-dated, remains a classic, bittersweet rom-com that touches the heart.
Our story begins in the airport, where Dr. John Wayne Prentice (Poitier) and Joanna Drayton (Houghton) have just returned from Hawaii. The two are deeply in love, laughing, smiling and canoodling all the way to baggage claim. One might think they’re returning from a honeymoon, but the fact is the two just met 10 days ago and are actually engaged, making a stop in San Francisco to share the happy news with Joanna’s parents.
While Dr. Prentice is apprehensive about the meeting, Joanna isn’t bothered in the slightest. Her father, Matt (Tracy), is a liberal newspaper owner who has spent his life fighting discrimination. Her mother, Christina (Hepburn) was adamant on raising their daughter to believe that white people were no better than other races and people who say otherwise were racist bigots.
Thanks to her parents, Joanna is so liberal in her beliefs that she claims she doesn’t even see color; however, the same can’t be said for her folks. The speed of the romance alone might be enough to give them pause, as could their 14-year age difference. But neither issue raises as many eyebrows as the simple fact that Dr. Prentice is black.
While they clearly harbor no ill will towards the doctor, they never expected that interracial marriage would be something they’d have to deal with so close to home. Christina, the first to learn of the engagement, is shocked at first, but she comes around – finding happiness in her daughter’s bubbly happiness. Matt, on the other hand, has a harder time accepting the relationship. On the one hand, he couldn’t ask for a better partner for his daughter. John is smart, well-spoken, rich and noble. He serves on the United Nations committees and works with the underprivileged in Africa and Asia. On the other hand, he knows his daughter and John will be entering a world that’s not so understanding and he worries for their future. While he fights discrimination during the day, he also must deal with the fact that his personal views may not be quite as liberal as he thought.
The farse continues when a phone call back home results in John’s parents making a surprise visit to meet the happy couple – and suddenly we’re set up for a Birdcage-style dinner scene between the two families – but that’s not what happens.
Joanna’s parents play kind hosts to Mr. and Mrs. Prentice, and it soon becomes obvious that John’s parents echo the feelings of Joanna’s, with the mothers approving and the fathers remaining apprehensive. Each wife tries to convince her respective husband to give in to young love, but it doesn’t work. It’s not until Mrs. Prentice (Beah Richards) has a heart to heart with Matt that things begin to turn. During their talk, she tells him that he (and her husband) most likely appose the marriage because they’ve forgotten what it means to be in love. It’s a harsh critique that attacks Matt’s masculinity and forces him to reconsider his harsh stance against his daughter’s wishes.
As the evening concludes, Matt gathers everyone together in the living room. In a beautiful soliloquy, he claims that he does indeed remember what it’s like to be in love. As he looks over at Christina, tears filling her eyes, you almost forget you’re watching Matt and Christina and see his speech as a sweet love letter to Hepburn herself.
Of course, classic film lovers are well aware of the long and passionate romance between Tracy and Hepburn, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner would be the ninth and final time the duo appeared on screen, with Tracy passing away just 2 weeks after principal photography was complete. Hepburn, who won an Oscar for her part in the movie, never saw the final production – as seeing Tracy on screen again was too painful for her to revisit.
Besides Hepburn’s Oscar, the movie would also win Best Screenplay and would walk away with 8 other nominations (again, none for Poitier).
Admittedly, this movie left me weeping. Though parts of it may seem dated today, there’s no denying that the overall message here is still very relevant. It even inspired another director to take a stab at this storyline in the Oscar-nominated film, Get Out (2017).
All in all, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner does not ask whether people can change – rather it asks whether people who believe they are good and just can live up to their own ideals and be the kind of people they claim to be. It’s a question that remains an important part of the race conversation today and one that helps Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner remain a relevant movie even in this modern age.
The movies of this year were genuine proof that the 1960s were a time of change in the United States. This year’s winner, In the Heat of the Night, and my hidden gem, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, were clear indications that the race conversation was only just beginning, while Bonnie and Clyde and even The Graduate were testaments to the rebellious nature of the 60s generation. Even movies that came out in 1967 that were not nominated, including Cool Hand Luke and The Dirty Dozen, further speak to the idea of anti-establishment.
Though nominated (and a total clunker), Doctor Dolittle just couldn’t compete at the box office against other musicals that came out that year, including Disney’s The Jungle Book, Camelot, and Thoroughly Modern Millie.
When all’s said and done, I certainly have to agree with the Best Picture winner this year. In the Heat of the Night was topical, raw and real. The acting was superb and the story remains relevant even today.
Onto the next pull!