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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 67

Part 67: 1965


MOVIES:

  • Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb

  • Zorba the Greek (hidden gem)

  • Becket

  • My Fair Lady (winner)

  • Mary Poppins

Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Jack Creley, Slim Pickens, Peter Bull, James Earl Jones, Tracy Reed, Shane Rimmer

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Peter Sellers), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture


I can certainly appreciate dark, ironic humor. I love George Carlin. I love Fargo, Network, and Little Miss Sunshine. I’m all for laughing in the face of what scares us, be it the fate of the world, the fear of failure, or admitting that Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb is far from what I would call a “masterpiece”.


For all you film buffs who are about to go Jack Torrance on me, I will preface this by saying that I’m not really a Kubrick fan to begin with. The Shining was great; A Clockwork Orange was great; but that’s about my limit. And while I can certainly admit that Dr. Strangelove is iconic (thanks mainly to Peter Sellers’ portrayal of the mangled Nazi scientist), I can’t agree that this movie was enjoyable, at least for me.

The humor (and yes, there is humor!) in Dr. Strangelove is generated by a basic comic principle: people trying to be funny are never as funny as people trying to be serious and failing. A man wearing a funny hat is not funny…but a man who doesn’t know he’s wearing a funny hat…now that’s entertainment.


The movie begins with a deranged General Ripper (Sterling Hayden) ordering a nuclear attack on Russia to stop an infiltration which, he claims, is “sapping and impurifying all of our precious bodily fluids” – basically he’s impotent and blaming Communism.

In Washington DC, an emergency meeting is called to determine how to react to the crisis. Present are President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), and Dr. Strangelove (also Peter Sellers) – an ex-Nazi scientist who is now head of the United States’ weapons development program.

Meanwhile, aboard the bomber is a crew that will play a vital role in the events about to transpire. Led by Major “King” Kong (Slim Pickens), an old-fashioned, gung-ho cowboy who wears his cowboy hat over his headphones, these men are as American and anti-Communist as they come. Today they all might be wearing “Make America Great Again” hats…you get the idea.


As the film races to a conclusion – it is pretty fast-paced, all things considered – the plot becomes even more bizarre. A drunk Soviet complains to President Muffley that the US planes are flying too low and jamming his radar. Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers AGAIN) tries to put an emergency call through to the President, but the Pentagon won’t accept the collect call. And Dr. Strangelove still has loyal ties to Hitler, despite working for the US.

From a comedic standpoint, Dr. Strangelove has so many targets that it’s hard to know where to begin. The military is probably the biggest victim, with George C. Scott showcasing a satirical version of the Oscar-winning role he would have in Patton just five years later. He flirts with is girlfriend during a national crisis, believes 20 million American casualties are acceptable in the face of war, and chews gum like it’s going out of style.


The male, namely his libido, is also a target. Ripper launches a nuclear offence because of male insecurity, Mandrake and Muffley both share effeminate characteristics, the bomb crew distracts themselves with the latest issues of Playboy…even Dr. Strangelove entices the War Room officials with his calculation that there will be ten beautiful women for every man in his post-nuclear underground utopia.

And speaking of the War Room, this popular film set was constructed to look like a roulette wheel. The “big board” of blinking lights on the world map bears similarities to a pinball machine. For these officials, war is nothing but a game.


Dr. Strangelove is a movie that hinges on the constant juxtaposition between the seriousness of human survival and the absurdity of humanity. It’s charged by the irony that a plan designed to prevent human error can do the exact opposite and depicts – quite well, I might add – how the world’s fate rests in the hands of ridiculous people. And while I personally wasn’t a fan, I can certainly appreciate its message. Even today, it remains a cautionary tale about nuclear weapons, military leaders, and the checks and balances that have been put in place to protect us.

 

Zorba the Greek

Director: Michael Cacoyannis

Starring: Anthony Quinn, Alan Bates, Irene Papas, Lila Kedrova, Sotiris Moustakas, Anna Kyriakou, Eleni Anousaki, George Voyadjis, Takis Emmanuel, George Foundas, Pia Lindstrom

Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actress (Lila Kedrova), Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Cinematography (Black and White)

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Anthony Quinn), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture


This review was written by Gordon. I'll try and convince him to write more of these because he's damn good at it!


I grew up adjacent to Greek Americans, so I thought I knew what I was in for when Zorba the Greek came into our little project. One of my best friends from high school is a first generation American, his father being born of a long line of Spartans. No joke. My mom grew up and went to school with a Greek gal who taught her the alphabet and some Greek phrases, which I in turn learned (and have since forgotten). “Zorba the Greek. Sounds fun. That was the prevailing thought going into it, but I was not ready for what this film had in store for us.

Storming into American theaters just before Christmas of 1964, Zorba the Greek was a wildly successful movie where it had no business being so. It was the early 60’s in the U.S., where Lucy and Ricky slept in separate beds, we hadn’t yet fallen down the nightmarish wormhole that was the Vietnam War, and folks were still pretending the “good old days” of the 50’s were going to continue. The movie was already in the black before it screened at the first theater in New York City, and it would go on to gross in excess of $23 million against a $783,000 budget. Nice little Christmas present for 20th Century Fox.


Based off the book of the same name, it would become a stage play as well with Anthony Quinn reprising his role as the titular character. Quinn was Mexican, but back in the 60’s Hollywood thought that was close enough to Greek for their audiences. As long as you were somewhat ethnically ambiguous and could get butts in seats, they were happy as could be. To be fair, Quinn would play a Greek again in Only the Lonely, costarring with Maureen O’Hara (actually Irish) as an Irish woman in one of John Hughes’ most forgotten films. Check it out when you have a minute.


The big box office numbers and the interest in the film would give Americans a preview of the kinds of films they could expect to see as the decade progressed. Indeed, as the 70’s rolled on, we were treated to some of the rawest, hardest-hitting cinema ever seen.

Folks were intrigued by these actors and a director they hadn’t heard of before. In fact, Michael Cacoyannis was unheard of to most stateside dwellers. Cacoyannis was nominated for Best Director for his turn behind the camera. He was only ever nominated again for two foreign language films. Zorba the Greek remains his magnum opus. The film won Best Art Direction and Cinematography. Art Direction was overseen by a man named, I kid you not, Vassillis Photopolous. Serendipitous.

Lila Kedrova also took home a Best Supporting Actress award. Let’s hear it for her, as the Russian native learned English for this role. A Russian winning an Academy Award during the Cold War was already pretty impressive, but learning a new language to do so is doubly as impressive.


The film starts with Alan Bates’ character, Basil, headed to the island of Crete to reopen a coal mine his father left him. He meets Zorba by chance, and being a stirring conversationalist convinces Basil to let him come run his mine for him. I mean, Anthony Quinn (as Zorba) was quite persuasive. I’d have let him tag along too, if for no other reason than to hear him play his zither all day long as we drank and ate on the beach.


Things progress as the two become acquainted, but Basil soon learns that Zorba is very much a troubled but free spirit. Zorba has a dark past and served as a soldier in the Greek Army. Bad things happened and it changed who he is as a man. He doesn’t let it ruin his zest for life though, as the local debutante Madame Hortense (Kedrova) takes a liking to the boastful nomad.

Irene Papas plays the town widow, who rebuffs countless attempts by the locals to remarry. Basil and the widow end up spending the night with each other, and as you would have guessed in a small town, everyone finds out tout de suite. Zorba has been out of town drinking and doing as all single, dirty old men do. When he returns, Basil finds him and asks for his help as the villagers have decided the widow would be best as a corpse. Things don’t go great and we see (off screen) a woman has her throat cut and is left for dead. I was left with my mouth open at this point. Not many films of this era were dealing with these kinds of plot points. Scenes like this were rather moving. However, the movie rolls right along and the next scene is Zorba dancing and the mood has shifted. I was not expecting the swings in emotion that I, the viewer, was experiencing. I felt much like Basil, who was watching his investment shake into uncertainty before his eyes.

Towards the end of the film, we get the full realization that Zorba was unproven and full of beans, his logging machine failing in spectacular fashion. But at the end, Basil acquiesces to the way of life Zorba has been championing all along. You’ve got to give in to the crazy, the mayhem. Let it wash over you, stand back up, and fight again. Also, spit roast some lamb and dance on the beach. You’ve got to break free and be at peace with the rolling of the waves. Maybe this movie came across our airwaves at just the right time, or maybe it really was that good. Either way, I dug it and I’ve tried to let little things go more than before. There will always be obstacles, but you can let them be big and insurmountable, or you can climb over them and laugh that they tried to thwart your stride. Like Zorba said about his injuries from the war, they were all in front. You don’t run away from your problems. You face them. And drink wine.

 

Becket

Director: Peter Glenville

Starring: Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, Paolo Stoppa, Donald Wolfit, David Weston, Martita Hunt, Pamela Brown, Sian Phillips, Felix Aylmer, Gino Cervi, Percy Herbert, Niall MacGinnis, Christopher Rhodes, Peter Jeffrey, Inigo Jackson, John Phillips, Frank Pettingell, Hamilton Dyce, Jennifer Hilary, Veronique Vendell, Graham Stark, Jack Taylor, Victor Spinetti, Edward Woodward

Oscar Wins: Best Adapted Screenplay

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Peter O’Toole), Best Actor (Richard Burton), Best Supporting Actor (John Gielgud), Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction (Color), Best Cinematography (Color), Best Music Score, Best Costume Design (Color), Best Sound, Best Director, Best Picture


Twice in a 500-year period there was a bold, obnoxious king named Henry who had a devoted chancellor and friend named Thomas. Each Thomas was forced to oppose his king in support of the church and was ultimately canonized as a saint. Both stories have been made into plays and were both adapted as Academy Award-winning films.


The 12th-century events of Becket, featuring Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and Thomas Becket (Richard Burton), aren’t quite as severe as the later A Man for All Seasons, which tells of Henry VIII’s desire to put his friend, Thomas More, as head of the church so he can convince him to “OK” his divorce from Catherine in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Aaaaaand we all know how that turned out…


While Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons is all about staying true to his conscience, Thomas Becket in Becket is more concerned with honor…honor towards his job, honor towards his country, and honor towards his friend. And while both stories feature the central premise of a friendship gone sour between a king and a close associate, the relationship between Henry II and Becket is almost embarrassingly close – to the point that the king’s own mother accuses him of having an “unnatural attraction” to his friend.

But let’s start at the beginning. Life at the court of King Henry II is a freaking circus. He drinks, he beds women, he complains about his sore butt (…), and he flirts HARD with his bestie, Thomas Becket, whom he calls “my little Saxon”.


On one hunting excursion, Henry and Becket stumble across a comely peasant girl. Both men fancy her, but Henry steps aside to let Becket have his way with her. After all, Henry doesn’t really like women. Unable to consummate his love for his fellow man, he takes his frustrations out on women, particularly his queen: “Your body, madam, was a desert that duty forced me to wander in alone. But you have never been a wife to me!” Sidenote: You can see their marriage continue to fall apart in The Lion in Winter, a movie where O’Toole plays an older Henry II against Katharine Hepburn. It’s a freaking delight, actually.

ANYHOOTERS – The real drama starts when Henry II butts heads with the archbishop over tax exemptions. In an effort to get his money, he decides to appoint Becket as the new archbishop, hoping he can help secure the money Henry needs to pay for a war against France. But, as we’ve discussed, Thomas Becket is nothing if not an honorable man…and the choice between honoring his country or his king weighs heavy on his heart.


As a period piece and costume drama, Becket certainly feels like an epic. It’s got the long runtime and it’s filled with lots of heavy dialogue about religion and politics. It’s also quite the character study, as Becket attempts to balance his commitment to the crown and his loyal, if not ambivalent, commitment to the church (ironically, like most royals, a job he never even asked for).

And like most films about ancient royalty, the leaders of church and state are self-serving, impatient and small-minded. Henry believes Becket will do anything for him, including dishonor the position Henry forced him to hold. It’s the type of misunderstanding that has written most of history and, even with a lack of drama and romance, is enough to keep this movie interesting, if not entertaining.

 

My Fair Lady

Director: George Cukor

Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Stanley Holloway, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Gladys Cooper, Jeremy Brett, Theodore Bikel, Mona Washbourne, Isobel Elsom, John Holland

Oscar Wins: Best Actor (Rex Harrison), Best Musical Score, Best Art Direction (Color), Best Costume Design (Color), Best Director, Best Cinematography (Color), Best Sound, Best Picture

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Gladys Cooper), Best Supporting Actor (Stanley Holloway), Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay


In today’s day and age, a movie like My Fair Lady probably wouldn’t impress audiences. A snobby Brit tries to “improve” a working woman by teaching her how to talk pretty and wear fancy hats. No doubt Professor Henry Higgins would be “cancelled” for his misogynistic behavior and songs about why women can’t be more like men. Off it would go to the graveyard of “Movies that Send Bad Messages”, buried next to the likes of Gone with the Wind, Grease, and the more recent As Good As It Gets.


While I’m certainly in agreement that Henry Higgins is far from the ideal man…and while I can’t deny that this movie musical is very much still an outdated rom-com, My Fair Lady is much more than just a relic of a sexist time. The movie may be misogynistic – but it’s also about misogyny.

It all started behind the scenes. When word got out about the film, Julie Andrews was eyeing the lead of Eliza Doolittle. She played Eliza in the Broadway production and had already mastered the character. She knew the vocals, the songs, and she was already familiar with co-star Rex Harrison, who was also in the Broadway production. But the studio didn’t think Andrews had the name recognition or glamor to carry a major motion picture. Audrey Hepburn, on the other hand, had never made a financial flop in Hollywood and ended up securing the role (Andrews got the last laugh, though – losing the lead allowed her to make Mary Poppins, a movie that earned her both a Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Actress).


The story itself, which involves the meeting of two egos, didn’t change much from its inspiration, Pygmalion: an overbearing male “genius” named Professor Higgins (Rex Harrison) transforms a poor, ugly woman named Eliza (Audrey Hepburn) from her meager, inadequate self into his personal idea of elegance. But where My Fair Lady differs is that Eliza is strong and independent, even attempting to retain her identity in spite of her dear professor. It’s not Higgins who wants to “fix” Eliza, but Eliza who hires Higgins to help her fix her speech and become a lady. “I know what lessons cost as well as you do,” she says, “and I’m ready to pay.”

Reluctant at first, Higgins eventually agrees - with a stipulation, of course. He will house her for six months if she adheres to his lesson plan, including learning how to speak, walk, dress, and in all manner look and act like a lady. At the conclusion of the six-month timeframe, Eliza will be taken to an embassy ball where she must impress all the muckety-mucks of proper London society.


Higgins is ruthless in pushing Eliza. She’s given new and proper clothes, instructed about what to wear and how to behave, and works day and night on improving her speech. Throughout the process, Higgins calls her everything from a “bilious pigeon” to a “squashed cabbage leaf” to an “incarnate insult to the English language”. Nothing like some positive reinforcement!


But Eliza is no pushover. She also has plenty of songs that demonstrate she is anything but a statue to look at, including “Without You”, “Show Me”, and “Just You Wait”, basically a showtune version of Taylor Swift’s Vigilante Shit.

Buuut, this is 1964, after all – and the whole “I AM WOMAN HEAR ME ROAR” message gets compromised by the ending. After all of her songs about being able to stand on her own, Eliza returns to Higgins – realizing she may love the twerp after all. When he famously asks her, “where the devil are my slippers?”, she all but puts them on his feet for him. It’s a similar ending to Grease, where you know these two probably shouldn’t be together and you know for certain there’s no longevity here, but Eliza taking those slippers and straight-up throwing them at Higgins’ face wasn’t quite the happy ending audiences wanted. Plus, without Higgins, Eliza has nothing – no education, no money, no family. It’s back to the streets for her once his little “experiment” is over. In this case, her choosing the man doesn’t make My Fair Lady a sexist movie necessarily, just a movie about a sexist time.


Few genres of films are as magical as musicals, and there aren’t many musicals as lively as My Fair Lady. It’s a classic not because a bunch of film bros have labeled it that way, but because it’s a joy to watch. The costumes are amazing, the set designs are stunning, even the banter between Eliza and Higgins is a joy to behold. While it certainly is a product of its time, that doesn’t mean it’s any less literate, likeable, or loverly.

 

Mary Poppins

Director: Robert Stevenson

Starring: Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns, Hermione Baddeley, Reta Shaw, Karen Dotrice, Matthew Garber, Elsa Lanchester, Arthur Treacher, Reginald Owen, Don Barclay, Ed Wynn, Marjorie Bennett, Arthur Malet, Jane Darwell, Marjorie Eaton, James Logan, Alma Lawton, Marc Breaux, Daws Butler, Peter Ellenshaw, Paul Frees, Bill Lee, Jimmy MacDonald, Sean McClory, Dallas McKennon, Alan Napier, Marni Nixon, J. Pat O’Malley, George Pelling, Thurl Ravenscroft, Richard M. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman, Ginny Tyler, Martha Wentworth

Oscar Wins: Best Actress (Julie Andrews), Best Song (“Chim Chim Cher-ee”), Best Special Visual Effects, Best Original Musical Score, Best Film Editing

Other Nominations: Best Art Direction (Color), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography (Color), Best Musical Score, Best Director, Best Costume Design (Color), Best Sound, Best Picture


We all have those movies that define our childhood – the ones that we know by heart, the ones that inspire party themes, Halloween costumes, baby and pet names. Movies we know we can turn to when we’re feeling sad, depressed, or nostalgic...that have morphed and shaped who we’ve become. For me, that movie is Mary Poppins.


When I tell you that this movie basically raised me, I mean it was my actual babysitter. When I was upset or, more often, when my parents needed to keep me occupied, they knew they could pop this movie in the VCR and I would happily sit in front of the TV for nearly 3 hours and watch it from start to end. I don’t know if it was the music, the colors, or the classic Disney magic, but when the day was gray and ordinary, Mary made the sun shine bright.

Watching it again for this project, there’s no denying that there is a child’s magic about Mary Poppins, but there’s also a very tart realism that prevents it from being “just a kids movie”. This is not a movie about growing up, but a movie ABOUT grownups and the very “adult” problems we face.


From the moment we meet the Banks family, it’s clear that “parenting” isn’t happening in this household. The children have run off (again) and their nanny either didn’t notice or didn’t care. Mrs. Banks (Glynis Johns) is too busy with the suffragettes to watch her own children and Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson) is quite oblivious to the fact that he even HAS children, except when it’s convenient for him.


After the current Banks nanny storms out of the house for the last time, Mr. Banks is left with the task of having to find a replacement. His children Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber), who not only feel responsible, but also can’t help but think their father doesn’t love them, take it upon themselves to write the new advertisement for their nanny. It’s clear from the song they sing, “The Perfect Nanny”, that what the children desire most is a parent: “Love us as a son and daughter”, they sing. While they also ask for candy and sweets, the heart of the letter shows what they’re lacking in their household. Clearly their experience up until this point has been one of scolding and domination rather than love, play and happiness.

Unsurprisingly, the letter is ripped up and thrown into the fire…but it still finds exactly who it’s intended for…like an Edwardian Superman, Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) descends to earth, Jane and Michael’s letter in hand, and basically hires herself to be the Banks’ nanny.


Trim, neat, and ever so efficient, she makes work into fun and fun into hilarity. Her approach, like most children’s classics, is to open the mind as an entrance to the imagination. She introduces the children to a chimney sweep named Bert (Dick Van Dyke), who – like Mary – has a bit of magic about him. The group jump into street paintings, play with cartoon animals, and have tea on the ceiling, singing and dancing along the way.

At first, it seems Mary Poppins is there to straighten out these wily kids but, as the film progresses, it’s clear that it’s the parents she’s there to fix. Mr. Banks sees his children as nothing more than “heirs to his dominion”, if he sees them at all…and Mrs. Banks is so focused on fighting for “our daughters’ daughters” that she doesn’t even make time for her own daughter. It’s not a nanny this family needs, but someone to show them that happiness and love isn’t found in the office or in the pressures of modern society, but in the home. This is an important lesson for Mr. Banks especially, who can't even bare to embrace his children until he loses his job (thereby finding happiness). When Bert makes it clear to Mr. Banks that his children will be up and grown in no time, there's a sadness on his face when he realizes he's basically failed them as a father. Is Mr. Banks really that devoted to his job, or his he perhaps repeating a pattern from his own childhood, as is so often the case...


With iconic music and set designs that make you feel like you’re actually in a storybook, Mary Poppins is a classic in every sense of the word. Julie Andrews’ performance is (spit) spot-on and, for me, it’s a film that’s practically perfect in every way.

 




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