Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 53
Part 53: 1966
The Sound of Music (winner)
A Thousand Clowns (hidden gem)
Ship of Fools
The Sound of Music
Director: Robert Wise
Starring: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Eleanor Parker, Richard Haydn, Peggy Wood, Charmian Carr, Heather Menzies, Nicholas Hammond, Duane Chase, Angela Cartwright, Debbie Turner, Kym Karath, Anna Lee, Portia Nelson, Ben Wright, Daniel Truhitte, Norma Varden, Gil Stuart, Marni Nixon, Evadne Baker, Doris Lloyd
Oscar Wins: Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Musical Score, Best Sound, Best Picture
Other Nominations: Best Actress (Julie Andrews), Best Supporting Actress (Peggy Wood), Best Art Direction (Color), Best Cinematography (Color), Best Costume Design (Color)
From the day The Sound of Music opened in 1965, almost everyone – except maybe Christopher Plummer – knew it was destined to become a classic. Audiences came in droves, making it the most popular attraction in the first half-century of the Hollywood feature film (a record it would hold until Star Wars surpassed it several years later). Adjusted for inflation, it’s the 6th highest grossing film of all time, beat only by the likes of Gone with the Wind (#1), Titanic, (#3), and Star Wars (#4).
The Academy loved it too, bestowing it with 10 Oscar nominations, 5 of which it would win. In the full flush of Beatlemania, the soundtrack spent it’s first four years on the Billboard’s Top Album charts in the US and was #1 in the UK for 70 weeks. It was raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens eight days a week.
Nearly 60 years later, The Sound of Music is still a crowd-pleaser. Full of joyous songs and gorgeous cinematography, the film packs an emotional power that’s still irresistible for even the most hard-hearted Captains.
Even if you’ve never seen The Sound of Music, you probably know the classic opening scene. Maria (Julie Andrews) sings and spins – arms spread wide – through the hills of Austria. She is a headstrong postulant whose childlike impulsiveness gets her into more trouble than it should with her fellow nuns.
However, Mother Abbess (Peggy Wood) encourages Maria’s nature and believes life may have a different path for this beloved flibbity-jibbit. She decides to send Maria to the home of Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) to become a governess to his seven motherless children.
Clothed in uniforms, the Von Trapp children are no stranger to governesses…they’ve scared away 12 already. They march around the house like little soldiers, responding not to their names, but their father’s whistle commands. They waste no time attempting to haze their new au pair; but there’s nothing Mary Poppins Maria can’t handle! She twists around their prank and teaches them a lesson in first impressions and contrition. Almost instantly, she gains their approval.
Despite Captain Von Trapp’s insistence on regimented behavior, Maria is determined to teach the children to be children. She gives them all the ingredients of pure adolescence – including singing, dancing, and playing – in an effort to restore their childlike wonder. And when the Captain returns from a trip with romantic interest Baroness Schroeder (Eleanor Parker), he’s at first furious at his children’s rambunctiousness…that is, until he hears them singing for the Baroness, bringing some much needed cheer to a house that has been absent of music since his wife’s death.
Over time, the Captain also falls for Maria’s charms and it seems like the family Von Trapp will finally be whole again…but when the Captain is summoned to join Hitler’s army, he has no choice but to leave the country he loves to protect those he loves even more.
Not only did The Sound of Music mark the end of the epic Hollywood musical, it also was one of the last movies to portray a “domestic heroine”, a woman who outwits the Nazis with the weapon of melody and learns to love a man by falling in love with his children. Even after animated and action movies have surpassed the musical and more complicated anti-heroes have left caring mother figures in their kitchens, this fairy tale-type story (that’s actually based in fact) still has a nurturing impact. For millions of viewers, myself included, the thrills are still very much alive with The Sound of Music.
Director: David Lean
Starring: Omar Sharif, Tarek Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin, Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness, Tom Courtenay, Siobhán McKenna, Ralph Richardson, Rita Tushingham, Jeffrey Rockland, Klaus Kinski, Bernard Kay, Gérard Tichy, Jack MacGowran, Noel Willman, Geoffrey Keen, Adrienne Corri, Mark Eden
Oscar Wins: Best Art Direction (Color), Best Cinematography (Color), Best Costume Design (Color), Best Original Musical Score, Best Adapted Screenplay
Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Tom Courtenay), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Picture
One factor that sets Doctor Zhivago apart from other great romances is the nature of its characters. Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) is unfaithful to his wife. His lover, Lara (Julie Christie) doubts her virtue after succumbing to her mother’s lover and facing her guilt over her affair with Yuri. They’re both antiheroes, lacking the righteousness found in many similar love stories. For some, it might make sympathizing with these two slightly more difficult. However, I found it made them even more relatable.
Built around the “love conquers all” motif, Doctor Zhivago is a movie with power in its veins. Dripping with melodramatic romanticism, this film traces the fates of Yuri and Lara alongside that of Russia, when life under the czar went through a tumultuous transition to life under communism.
General Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guiness) is on a mission to locate his niece, the daughter of his half-brother Yuri Zhivago. His search leads him to a young dam worker girl, who denies being of any relation to Yuri. However, as names and locations become more familiar to her, a flashback begins that takes us back to Yuri’s early years in Moscow, where he studies medicine and poetry.
Elsewhere in Russia, Lara is engaged to a man named Pasha (Tom Courtenay), who wants a revolution (whether or not the country is ready for it). As his political agenda begins to overshadow his love for Lara, Victor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), a wealthy man who has been…advising…Lara’s mother, takes advantage of his position and seduces the 17-year-old Lara. When her mother finds out, she attempts suicide. A doctor is called to the house, along with his apprentice, Dr. Yuri Zhivago. Yuri and Lara meet for the first time, and it’s love at first sight.
But it is not in the cards for these lovers quite yet. World War I rages on and Yuri and Lara go on living their separate lives. Yuri is married to Tonya (Geraldine Page), Lara is a mother. Yet, when they reunite four years after their initial meeting, the love they have for each other hasn’t waned a bit. Yet fate would have other plans. As the two weave in and out of each other’s lives, the tragic story of their love affair takes center stage among the backdrop of the Russian Revolution.
The overarching theme of Doctor Zhivago is a classic – does love conquer all? Can Yuri and Lara find their way back to each other in a storyline determined to keep them apart? It should come as no surprise that this Russian romance doesn’t end happily…but perhaps it ends realistically. Not all soulmates find their way back to each other. Not all love stories end in a happy marriage. But that certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Though this movie oozes sentimentality, Doctor Zhivago offers a love story for the ages…maybe not one to idolize, but one that reminds us that love, no matter how fleeting, is worth fighting for.
Director: John Schlesinger
Starring: Julie Christie, Laurence Harvey, Dirk Bogarde, José Luis de Vilallonga, Roland Curram, Basil Henson, Helen Lindsay, Alex Scott, Ernest Walder, Brian Wilde, Pauline Yates, Peter Bayliss, T.B. Bowen, Carlo Palmucci, Dante Posani, Umberto Raho, Richard Bidlake, Annette Carell, Jean Claudio, Georgina Cookson, James Cossins, Jane Downs, Tyler Butterworth, Hugo Dyson, Ann Firbank, Angus MacKay, Lucille Soong, Silvia Dionisio, Ray Lovelock, John Steiner
Oscar Wins: Best Actress (Julie Christie), Best Costume Design (Black and White), Best Original Screenplay
Other Nominations: Best Director, Best Picture
Diana Scott (Julie Christie) is a London model with all the goods: glamorous looks, self-confidence, charm, ambition. She personifies everything contemporary society deems worthwhile to possess. She’s everyone’s darling and, as everyone is quick to point out, the world is hers for the taking.
Unfortunately, Diana’s free spirit and sense of independence stems from a restless dissatisfaction with her life. She’s bored with it all. Though she galivants from one sexual encounter to another, she remains unsatisfied. As one critic said, “she went from bed to worse.”
Like so many young, middle-class Brits of the “Swinging Sixties”, Diana is a bonified free spirit. She lacks an elaborate education, so she reaches for the next best thing – an affair with an educated man. Bored in her marriage, she begins an affair with a BBC interviewer named Robert Gold (Dirk Bogarde). He loves her freshness and vitality, she loves his smarts and class. They leave their respective spouses and move in together. He brings books, she brings LP’s.
It’s all fine and dandy until Diana meets Miles Brand (Laurence Harvey), a smooth-talking corporate go-getter who has the money and know-how to get her into showbusiness.
He provides for her in exchange for sexual favors but, like so many men of his breed, is incapable of love or emotional connection.
So, from Robert she got the support, but not the intimacy. From Miles she got the intimacy, but not the support. What’s a swingin’, too-hot-to-trot bachelorette supposed to do?
Find a prince, of course! Diana goes from the streets and back alleys of the London porn scene to shagging an Italian prince. Finally, she has everything. Money, power, a staff to wait on her hand and foot. But is it enough?
For American audiences, Diana is a strange character. She’s fascinated by money and power, but doesn’t go after it in an organized fashion. She’s a magnificent improvisor, taking advantage of whatever strikes her fancy at the moment. But when that moment passes, she’s faced with a fate worse than death for every swinging Londoner: boredom.
It’s not until Diana moves to Italy that she realizes what it is she really wants. When talking to her gay friend (how taboo!), she tells him, “I was just thinking how nice it would be if we could live here. I could do without sex. I don’t really like it that much. If I could just feel complete.” Diana has been led to believe that “liberation” is a complete lack of ties to anything, even herself. She hops from one sexual encounter to another, looking for what society has told her is happiness and success: a man. But following this path has led her to nothing but loneliness.
A Thousand Clowns
Director: Fred Coe
Starring: Jason Robards, Barbara Harris, Martin Balsam, Barry Gordon, William Daniels, Gene Saks, Phil Bruns
Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actor (Martin Balsam)
Other Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Musical Score, Best Picture
To pre-hippie eccentric Murray Burns, (Jason Roberts), there’s nothing more horrible than the sight of men and women – clad in business-appropriate suits and skirts – pounding the pavement of the concrete jungle on their way to a nine-to-five job. While viewing the hustle and bustle of the New York streets, he says to his nephew:
“Nick, in a moment you are going to see a horrible thing.”
“People going to work.”
Once a writer for a children’s TV show, Murray is now 5 months out of work. Living off unemployment, he has no desire to return to the rat race. He’s gotten quite comfortable in his new lifestyle, indulging in the touristy spots of New York City with his 12-year-old nephew, Nick (Barry Gordon). The two share a one-room apartment after Nick’s mother abandoned him seven years ago.
But there’s a threat looming over Murray and Nick’s bohemian lifestyle. The child welfare board, whose letters and phone calls Murray has been ignoring, have come a-knocking. Sandra Markowitz (Barbara Harris) and Albert Amundsen (a very young William Daniels) show up at Murray’s apartment to investigate their living situation.
Albert believes Nick would be better off living elsewhere, but Sandra sympathizes with what she views as a healthy relationship between a boy and his caretaker. She is willing to do whatever it takes to keep Nick where he is, an act that plants the seeds for romance between herself and Murray.
But even Sandra can’t stop the court, and it seems Murray must do the inevitable: muster up his pride and find employment or lose his nephew forever.
Based on the Tony-nominated play of the same name, the film production of A Thousand Clowns stars almost everyone involved in the Broadway production. It feels so much like a stage show that it’s easily the “most movie based on a play” in all of existence.
And that’s far from a bad thing. A Thousand Clowns is filled with everything that makes the theater so enjoyable – great sets, quick dialogue, and loveable characters. It also makes a fine case for life of the eccentric – as any great theatrical show should. It takes us into a world of kooky free spirits and warmhearted screwballs and offers us a laugh, and a lesson, for the price of admission. While the film is mostly comedy, there is also a serious through-line about responsibility and conformity that help elevate it to a more meaningful fare.
Like another great anti-work classic, Office Space, this film offers us a story of a man who doesn’t want to be one of a thousand clowns, rushing here and there and everywhere to just end up miserable at the end of the day. It’s a comedic, heartfelt look into what unites us as a human race…and, more importantly, what we’re willing to pay for a paycheck.
Ship of Fools
Director: Stanley Kramer
Starring: Vivien Leigh, Simone Signoret, Jose Ferrer, Lee Marvin, Oskar Werner, Elizabeth Ashley, George Segal, Jose Greco, Michael Dunn, Charles Korvin, Heinz Ruehmann, Lilia Skala, Barbara Luna, Christiane Schmidtmer, Alf Kjellin, Werner Klemperer, John Wengraf, Olga Fabian, Gila Golan, Oscar Beregi, Stanley Adams, Karen Verne, Charles de Vries, Lydia Torea, Paul Daniel, David Renard, Rudy Carrella, Silvia Marino
Oscar Wins: Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Cinematography (Black and White)
Other Nominations: Best Actor (Oskar Werner), Best Supporting Actor (Michael Dunn), Best Actress (Simone Signoret), Best Costume Design (Black and White), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Writing, Best Picture
“This is a ship of fools,” says Carl Glocken (Michael Dunn). “Emancipated ladies and ballplayers. Lovers. Dog lovers. Ladies of joy. Tolerant Jews. Dwarfs. All kinds. And who knows – if you look closely enough, you may even find yourself on board.”
Everyone has a seat at the captain’s table in this lumbering and soapy drama set at sea. The human cargo aboard the German ship sailing from Vera Cruz to Bremerhaven contains a cross-section of mass humanity, including a wealthy divorcee, a drunk ballplayer, a forgiving Jew and a budding Nazi (who, of course, share a room). The whole thing is like a morbid traffic wreck…you want to look away, but you can’t help but be a little entertained.
Though the ship Vera has a defined port, the people on board have no idea of the future into which they are sailing. It’s 1933. Nazism is on the rise. Each passenger on board is an emotionally fragile bomb ready to explode. There’s the flirtatious divorcee, Mary Treadwell (Vivien Leigh in her final film) who fears old age; the Nazi, Siegfried Rieber (Jose Ferrer) who is ready to eliminate all inferior races; a washed up and drunken ballplayer (Lee Marvin) who spends the entire time trying to get laid; a couple (George Segal and Elizabeth Ashley) struggling to conform to, or break, gender roles; a drug-addicted Spanish countess (Simone Sigoret) who is on her way to prison; a wealthy German Jew (Heinz Ruhmann) who is oblivious to what’s coming; the ship’s doctor (Oskar Werner) who suffers from a heart condition and a loveless marriage; and a dwarf (Dunn) who also acts as the narrator. Also on board are about 600 Spanish sugarcane workers forcibly returning from Cuba. It’s a mixed bag of nuts to say the least.
Each main character gets the chance to act out their part and be a showcase for the human condition. Soliloquies and monologues abound in a movie drowning with words. In retrospect, the idea of all these characters acting as a microcosm of society is an interesting concept, but it’s almost too much. There are way too many storylines going at the same time, which crowds an already over-crowded plot. Vivian Leigh’s character, for example, is a dying star – not unlike Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard. She’s easily the most interesting character in the whole movie, yet doesn’t get nearly the development she deserves. Her final scene, where she does an impromptu Charleston before applying her makeup in a grotesque manner, seems almost comical rather than sad because we don’t spend enough time with her to understand her obvious mental health issues.
But what Ship of Fools really wants you to see is how it’s an allegory about Nazism. Siegfried Rieber is a loud and proud Nazi who believes that the best way to return to a just world is to eliminate the inferior races. He shares his room with the only Jew on board, a man so oblivious that he simply won’t believe that his beloved Germany could ever fall under the sway of people like Rieber. “There are a million Jews in Germany,” he says. “What are they going to do, kill us all?”
Ship of Fools contains other messages, too…everything from the treatment of migrant workers to the fact that most people are one big hot mess express. It packs a lot of learning and characters into its 150-minute runtime, then fills in all the gaps with plenty of melodrama. I guess if there’s anything positive to take away from this soap opera at sea, it’s that all of us, from the poor to the wealthy, the large to the small, the young to the young at heart, are all on the same boat.