Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 16
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 16: 1969
Romeo and Juliet
The Lion in Winter
Oliver!: I’ll give this to Dickens – he gets a lot of mileage out of his stories.
This heartwarming musical, based on a play, based on the Charles Dickens novel, Oliver Twist, is jam-packed with catchy showtunes, brilliant choreography and deliciously devilish performances from pretty much everyone except Oliver himself (though it’s no fault of the actor playing him). If this musical proves anything, it’s that the best role is almost never the lead role.
The workhouse in Dunstable, England is run by more little boys than I even imagine living in England in the 1800s. The prettiest among them, a little cherub named Oliver (Mark Lester), gets in trouble when he pulls the long straw and is egged on by his friends to ask the caretaker, Mr. Bumble (Harry Secombe), for another portion of gruel.
Completely enraged and flabbergasted that this hungry little boy would have the audacity to ask for more food enrages Mr. Bumble so much that he decides to just outright sell the boy to the highest bidder (the song ‘Boy for Sale’ shows off Secombe’s absolutely amazing tenor voice).
Oliver is eventually purchased, but runs away, finding himself in the dirty streets of London. It is here where Oliver crosses paths with the delightful Artful Dodger (Jack Wild), a pickpocket who brings him to a hideout for young thieves, presided over by the conniving Fagin (Ron Moody).
Oliver is quickly indoctrinated into the group, but on his first pickpocketing mission with the Artful Dodger, he ends up taking the fall for a theft gone wrong. Oliver is brought to trial, where a witness testifies to Oliver’s innocence. The wealthy victim, Mr. Brownlow (Joseph O’Conor) takes pity on the boy and agrees to foster him.
Though Oliver is now enjoying his life of luxury, Fagan and his partners, Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed) and Nancy Sikes (Shani Wallis) worry that Oliver might rat them out, so they plot to kidnap Oliver and bring him back to Fagin. They succeed, but Nancy immediately regrets it, as Oliver had a good life with Mr. Brownlow. She ultimately decides to return the boy, but is caught by her husband, Bill, who beats her to death. Bill takes Oliver as hostage, but is eventually shot by police. Oliver finally returns home to Mr. Brownlow who, in the meantime, has discovered that Oliver is the son of his long-lost niece. Fagan and the Artful Dodger literally skip off into the sunset together to continue their life of crime and thus ends this 150-minute romp through Victorian England.
Now, it should come as no surprise that musicals life and die on the quality of their songs. Luckily, Oliver! has some really fantastic music. Thanks to John Green, who was the musical director at MGM during the ‘golden age of musicals’, Oliver! shines with brilliant musical numbers, including “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two”, “Consider Yourself”, “I’d Do Anything”, “Reviewing the Situation”, and “Boy for Sale”. In fact, everyone appeared to be having such a great time singing and dancing in these numbers that you forget that this movie is about the abuse of young children.
All kidding aside, I have to say that the reason these musical numbers are so good is that the cast in this movie is even better. Jack Wild is a natural thespian and brings The Artful Dodger to life with such style and charisma. He portrays such self-confidence that half of this movie really belongs to him.
The other half belongs to Ron Moody, who’s Fagin is near flawless. Every musical number he’s a part of is so entertaining that I’d probably go so far as to call him a scene-stealer. Though shifty, menacing, and snake-like, Fagin is also at times hilarious, meek, and almost sympathetic. This movie belongs so much to Fagin and Dodger that when we see them marching off into the sunset together, it’s weird to think the movie doesn’t just end right there.
Unfortunately, the weakest link in this cast is really the title role of Oliver, though Mark Lester did as much as he could as a little 9-year-old to bring this boring character to life. The problem is that Oliver as a character is just not that interesting. He’s bright and attractive, he even gets a couple songs to lip-sync to, but the movie is strongly focused on those characters that surround him.
Nominated for 12 Academy Awards, Oliver! took home six, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Score, Best Sound, Best Art Direction, and an honorary award for Outstanding Achievement in Choreography. It took home $40 million at the box office, four times its production cost, and has been named one of the best British films of all time.
Despite its popularity, Oliver! represented the end of an era for movie musicals. It closed out a period when musicals would come to win a Best Picture Oscar. After Oliver!, only four other musicals would be nominated for Best Picture, but none would claim victory. It wouldn’t be until 2003, when Chicago somehow won Best Picture, that the musical film would increase in popularity.
For many children in England in the 1800s, life wasn’t much different than the lives of the kids in Oliver!. As the years have passed, stories like this become less socially relevant and more of a historical time capsule, capturing the lives of those who stopped at nothing to find a little love and acceptance in unforgiving places.
Rachel, Rachel: We all have our coming-of-age moment at different times. Hollywood would like us to believe that it happens somewhere between 16 and 17 but, for most of us, our day of reckoning my not come until much later.
For Rachel Cameron (Joanne Woodward), a single, 35-year-old schoolteacher who lives with her domineering mother, her moment can’t come soon enough. Though she may seem fine on the outside, on the inside she’s full of a pent-up desire to explore life and all its pleasures.
Of course, the problem is that Rachel is the product of a small town – one she can’t escape and one that is ingrained into her every being. Her childhood home, where she still lives, is a funeral parlor and the stench of death has crept into her very bones. No matter where she goes, she’s met with harsh flashbacks that bring into focus just how she has come to be this way. As she walks to work, she imagines herself as a young girl getting taunted by her classmates. When she walks into the basement of her house, she sees images of her father embalming one of her dead friends. Hell, her mom still wakes her up to go to school. She is stuck in every sense of the word.
However, her luck begins to change when an old childhood friend named Nick (James Olson) comes back into town and asks Rachel on a date – well, not a date, per se – a booty call. But this is not a language Rachel knows. When Nick asks her to go see a movie, she asks what’s playing and he says, “does it matter?”. She has never been with a man and has only fantasized (a lot, I might add) about finding someone who makes her feel alive.
Nick and Rachel begin a sexual relationship and, as one might expect, Rachel becomes infatuated. Nick, on the other hand, isn’t quite ready to settle down and skips town before things get too serious. Finally, after a pregnancy scare leaves her brokenhearted, Rachel decides to leave town and make a new life for herself in Oregon. She is neither doomed for spinsterhood nor reformed (married) but is open-minded about possibility. Though the ending is ambiguous, we can’t help but want the best for Rachel as she starts the second phase of her life.
Directed by Woodward’s husband, Paul Newman, Rachel, Rachel is what one might call an “artsy” film today. It uses a lot of jump cuts and fragmented editing, which both appear jarring at first, but you get used to it. Flashbacks and voiceover are used to highlight Rachel’s inner monologue and close-ups of Rachel’s face and reactions almost become storytelling devices themselves, thanks to Woodward’s great acting skills. Nell Potts, the young, blue-eyed daughter of Woodward and Newman, portrays the young Rachel in these flashback scenes.
Rachel, Rachel also deals with other sub-themes that were important for the time, including lesbianism, abortion, and feminism; however, they’re much more understated. In fact, the passive watcher might even miss these things. Newman was obviously not shy about putting these values into question, but apparently he just didn’t make them loud enough to cause the audience uproar he was expecting.
For all intents and purposes, this is very much a ‘human’ movie. It’s about connection and intimacy, friendship and family dynamics. But, perhaps most of all, it’s a movie about loneliness…and not just feeling lonely after a breakup…the prolonged loneliness that becomes someone’s way of life. To long so much for human touch, yet be so out of practice that the thought of it sends you into a panic…to feel the desire for intimacy, yet be unable to bring someone into a world that’s been so solitary up to this point. To be embarrassed by the simple act of desiring another person. These are hard emotions to capture on screen, yet Woodward seems to do it flawlessly. There is a level of respect for Rachel not just from Woodward, but from Newman, too. Her inexperience is not something to be mocked, it’s something to be explored. Though this movie is by no means revolutionary, it’s honest and simple, just like Rachel herself. No flash, no pizazz, but a whole lot of heart and soul.
Romeo and Juliet: “What is youth? Impetuous fire. What is a maid? Ice and desire. The world wags on.”
Love him or hate him, Shakespeare certainly helped define the YA genre. With the archetypal romance of these Italian star-crossed lovers, the Bard unknowingly created a mold for thousands of stories to follow…of forbidden love, whirlwind affairs and love at first sight – not to mention overly dramatic teenagers simply in love with being in love.
Though the story of Romeo and Juliet has been told and reimagined countless times, no version really spoke to its audience quite like this 1968 rendition. Starring two unknown actors who were only 17 and 15 at the time, this tale of adolescent lovers rebelling against the established order became immediately relatable to the counter-culture generation of the late 1960s. It took in almost $40 million in the box office and continues to be referenced as not only one of the best examples of Romeo and Juliet, but one of the best Shakespearean movies ever made.
I can’t imagine there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know the general gist of this story but, if you don’t or haven’t quite made it to freshman English yet, here’s a brief synopsis –
In Verona, there are two warring houses – the Montague’s and the Capulet’s. For our sake, Romeo is a Montague, Juliet is a Capulet.
By happenstance, Romeo and Juliet meet at a party and fall in love pretty much immediately, not realizing until later that their love is doomed since their families hate each other.
But, as young lovers often do, they keep their budding romance a secret, hiding in shadows and sneaking around in the dark to see each other. As word of their union spreads to friends of the couple, the conflict between the houses worsens, forcing them to take drastic measures to stay together.
Filmed in the cobblestone courtyards and medieval churches of Italy, Romeo and Juliet immediately establishes the proper time and place. Colorful Renaissance costumes help bring this play to life (and help us determine who’s a Montague and who’s a Capulet based on their color palette) and showcase the lovely fabrics that were popular during the time. The truly large number of codpieces also speaks to the overall vibe of teen sex, but, you know, when in Rome… 😉
Naturally the success of this movie is largely due to the fact that director Franco Zeffirelli cast two unknown, age-appropriate actors as his leads. Leonard Whiting, a 17-year-old Brit who’s basically Zac Efron’s doppelganger, played Romeo, while a much younger 15-year-old Argentinian girl named Olivia Hussey starred as Juliet. Though young in age and experience, these two had natural chemistry and a good grip on Shakespearean language. Their youth also worked to their advantage, as they were able to recite these lines with a charm and innocence that can only come from someone who has yet to experience their first traumatic love.
The rest of the cast was just as good. Michael York played a smug, devilish and HOT Tybalt and John McEnery was a high-energy Mercutio. The larger supporting roles of Juliet’s Nurse (Pat Heywood) and Friar Laurence (Milo O’Shea) were also superbly cast. And can we just all agree that the Nurse is easily the best role in this play?
Thankfully for R and J fans, Zeffirelli’s film doesn’t stray far from the original text. While several long monologues were cut or removed all together, it really wasn’t noticeable at all. The heart of the play – the purity of young love, the sassiness of The Nurse, the cruel irony of the ending – is all still there. In all honesty, it’s like a movie production of the cliff notes. IMHO, more Shakespearean movies should take note (*cough* JULIUS CAESEAR *cough*).
Not surprisingly, Romeo and Juliet was mostly popular with young teens, who instantly found themselves drawn to the young childhood lovers. It was the most financially successful film adaptation of a Shakespeare play at the time of its release and was the last Shakespearean film to be nominated for Best Picture to date (minus Shakespeare in Love, which doesn’t really count).
What really made this interpretation work (and honestly what made Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes fail) was that it focused more on the love than on the violence. When the play was first staged in London, Shakespeare supposedly had the satisfaction of “seeing the groundlings moved to emotions far beyond anything before known in theater.” Romeo and Juliet were not larger-than-life figures. They weren’t kings and queens, princes and princesses. They were just ordinary kids in love, as everyone in the theater had been…and as everyone in the theater could relate to.
Funny Girl: Streisand is the greatest star there is by far, and everyone should know it. At least, that’s the impression I got after watching the movie musical, Funny Girl.
Set in 1920’s New York City, Funny Girl is the semi-true story of comedienne Fanny Brice’s rise to fame. Though she wasn’t “traditionally beautiful” by the standards of time, Brice was extraordinarily talented and relied on her vocal skills and comedic timing to rise above the competition. Starring Barbara Streisand as Fanny Brice (in her film debut), Funny Girl is as much Streisand’s story as it is Bryce’s, if not more so.
The film begins with Bryce at the top of her career, dressed in plush leopard fur and dolled up to the nines. As she enters the empty theater in preparation for her performance, she reminisces about her humble beginnings as the film flashes back to Fanny getting her start at a small, neighborhood theater.
With distinct facial features and long, skinny legs, Fanny knows she’s not a “beautiful girl”, yet, she’s bound and determined to get on stage, some way, somehow. Her dark hair and eyes stand out in a sea of blonde and blue, and her body just wasn’t built for line dancing and vaudeville shows. However, what Fanny lacks in looks she makes up for in comedic timing and goofiness – and audiences simply adore her.
After one particularly entertaining performance on roller skates, Fanny has a chance meeting with two men who will change her life forever. Nicky Arnstein (Omar Sharif) wants to woo her, while Florenz Ziegfeld (Walter Pidgeon) – the biggest name on Broadway – wants to hire her. Nervously, Fanny accepts both offers as her little star in the sky begins to rise…
Though eager to have Fanny in his Follies, Ziegfeld quickly begins to realize that she has her own ideas of how she should perform her numbers. She knows her strengths and what audiences expect of her. It’s her way or the highway. Begrudgingly, Ziegfeld relinquishes control and the two learn to trust each other.
On the romantic front, Fanny is utterly charmed with Nicky, even though she thinks he’s way out of her league. However, Nicky refuses to be tied down. He enjoys his life of travel and gambling, and he’s not prepared to give that up for anyone, not even Fanny. This causes ups and downs in their relationship until they finally decide to commit to each other and get married.
Throughout the movie, we see Fanny weather all the storms: from rejection to success, from heartbreak to love. As the movie takes us back to the beginning, as Fanny is about to take the stage in a brilliant solo performance, we can’t help but be proud of the woman she’s become. And for Streisand, Fanny’s journey to stardom couldn’t have been more relatable.
Undoubtedly, this is Streisand’s film from start to finish. At the tender age of 26, she showcases impressive vocal chops and dead-pan humor that seems to come second-nature to her. However, Streisand was no humble diva, that’s for sure.
Even on her first film, Streisand was building a reputation as a perfectionist who demanded control over every aspect of production. She demanded extensive retakes of her songs, expressed opinions about costumes and photography, even had most of her scenes with other female actresses cut so she alone could shine. Director William Wyler was even quoted as saying that he didn’t direct Streisand, she directed herself.
This causes the film to be a little lopsided; great when Streisand is there, but flat when she’s not. Almost all of the supporting roles, including her love interest, Nicky Arnstein, seem to be a mere backdrop to her. Of course, that’s not to say she doesn’t deserve the praise. Her best numbers, including “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, “My Man” and the roller-skating sequence, are brilliant…but after two and a half hours of it, it’s almost too much of a good thing.
Much like its star, Funny Girl was an overnight success – becoming the highest-grossing film of 1968. It received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, but took home only one – a Best Actress Award for Streisand (Katherine Hepburn also won a Best Actress award for her role in The Lion in Winter this same year, the only exact tie between actors to date).
In 1968, everyone knew Streisand was bound to become one of the greats. With amazing vocal range and trademark looks that she embraced rather than hid, Streisand completely changed the conception of what a ‘screen queen’ could look like. She may not have been a Grace Kelly or a Doris Day but, much like Fanny, audiences couldn’t keep their eyes off her. She was here…and here to stay. Come hell or high water, nobody was gonna rain on her parade.
The Lion in Winter: For our family, Christmas was always a happy time. We’d go over to my grandma’s house for a homecooked meal, open gifts by her tree, we even put on a little Von Trap-style Christmas singalong which my grandpa taped every year. It was basically a Norman Rockwell painting.
Granted, not everyone is this lucky. For many people, Christmas brings out nothing but family dysfunction. Fights about who gets the last piece of pie or who let Uncle Eddie drink too much eggnog can easily spiral out of control. But, as Katherine Hepburn says in The Lion in Winter, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”
Set on Christmas Eve in 1183, The Lion in Winter is essentially a game of chess played through words and manipulation. On one side is Henry II (Peter O’Toole), king of England and father to three eligible rulers-in-waiting. On the other side is Eleanor (Katherine Hepburn), Henry’s estranged wife, who takes every opportunity to show Henry he’s not nearly as powerful as he thinks.
There’s a subtle, underlying humor to The Lion in Winter. It doesn’t come out and present itself right away, rather it just bubbles under the surface, cloaked in sarcasm and quick-passing wit (“What shall we hang, the holly or each other?”). It’s not quite enough to elevate this movie to greatness, but it certainly helped make this snoozefest a little more enjoyable.
For the most part, The Lion in Winter takes place over the course of Christmas Eve day. Henry II has just turned 50 and is dramatically expecting death any day now. Not wanting to leave his country in ruin after his passing (he wouldn’t actually die until 1189), Henry decides to dangle a little Yuletide gift over the heads of his three sons – the chance to inherit the throne and become king.
First up is John (Nigel Terry), Henry’s youngest and favorite son. Still in his pubescent years, John is a sniveling, smelly teen who knows his father favors him the most. Henry’s wife, Eleanor, prefers Richard (Anthony Hopkins) for the job, the eldest and most experienced of the three. He’s the logical choice, but his attitude and personality clash with his father. Geoffrey (John Castle), the reserved and quiet middle son, knows his chances are slim, yet he finds comfort in patiently waiting for everyone to destroy each other, giving him the power to take the throne.
However, things get a little complicated when King Philip of France (Timothy Dalton in his film debut) crashes the Christmas festivities, wondering when his sister, Alais (Jane Merrow), who has been residing with the family for years, will marry Henry’s heir. Philip demands the return of her dowry or Alias herself, but Henry doesn’t want to give up either, since *SURPRISE* he’s been sleeping with her for the last 10 years.
Now you might be asking yourself how Henry II got away with sleeping with another woman, and the answer is quite simple: he just locked his wife away in prison. Stuck in a tower away from the actual family dwelling, Eleanor has been imprisoned by her husband for over a decade for essentially pissing him off. He decides to let her out for Christmas Eve, and the two spend the entire movie engaging in a contest of will over which son shall inherit the kingdom.
Though he would never admit it, Eleanor is fully Henry’s equal, just as Hepburn was to O’Toole. Watching these two masters of Hollywood verbally flay the skin off each other is worth the watch, in my opinion. Never did I ever think that Katherine Hepburn would be my favorite part of anything, but she has never seemed more at home in a role. Even her unique accent seems befitting of this hard-headed and stubborn queen. At 61 years old, Hepburn portrayed this domineering matriarch with a mesmerizing mix of fury, tenderness and her classic bawdy humor.
But anyone can throw an insult. The true chops come in during those quiet moments, those scenes that show us that an underlying love remains, but finding and embracing it is almost impossible. Yes, they’re both cruel and greedy, but they still adore each other because they weirdly bring out the best in each other. Tormenting each other with power plays and mind games has changed their relationship into a furious struggle to maintain dominance, but they wouldn’t have it any other way.
When Christmas is over, Henry places Eleanor back on her boat and floats her back home to her prison cell. On her way out, he yells, “You know, I hope we never die! Do you think there’s any chance of it?” As he falls into a fit of laughter, it’s impossible not to hear it as a question from O’Toole to Hepburn. King and queens, and movie stars for that matter, worry over such matters. But true movie lovers, then and now, know that for these titans of the silver screen, immortality is a given.
Well, I guess every year can’t be an amazing one. While I didn’t really HATE any of the films this year, none of them really blew me away, either. The two musicals in this group, Oliver! and Funny Girl, were probably my favorites, with Funny Girl being my hidden gem. Rachel, Rachel was an interesting twist on the coming-of-age story, though still a little too blah for my taste.
The historical films, The Lion in Winter and Romeo and Juliet, each took a different approach to casting. Lion boasted an all-star cast, including heavyweights Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn. Romeo, on the other hand, cast a bunch of unknown actors in one of the most well-known stories ever written. Ironically, both of these were based on plays and felt like it, with theatrical pacing, costume design and big, bellowy performances that would be more at home on stage than they were on screen.
I think the most shocking thing about this batch is that it followed 1968, a year with such powerhouses as In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Graduate. Even 2001: A Space Odyssey (the year’s most profitable film) and Rosemary’s Baby, both of which came out in time to be nominated in 1969, failed to get that Best Picture nod.
With its stunning production value, it’s no surprise Oliver! took home Best Picture, especially in comparison to the other nominations. Yet its win was probably bittersweet, marking a distinct end to the popularity of musical movies. Still, best to go out with a bang, dear chap…and Oliver! certainly didn’t miss the mark there.
Onto the next pull!