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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 69

Part 69: 1964


MOVIES:

  • Lilies of the Field

  • Tom Jones (winner)

  • How the West Was Won

  • America America

  • Cleopatra (hidden gem)

Lilies of the Field

Director: Ralph Nelson

Starring: Sidney Poitier, Lilia Skala, Lisa Mann, Isa Crino, Francesca Jarvis, Pamela Branch, Stanley Adams, Dan Frazer

Oscar Wins: Best Actor (Sidney Poitier)

Other Nominations: Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Best Supporting Actress (Lilia Skala), Best Picture


Throughout the course of his 50-year career in Hollywood, Sidney Poitier made a lot of groundbreaking films: In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and A Raisin in the Sun, just to name a few. All of them dealt with some form of racism, an issue close to the heart of Hollywood’s first – and for many years only – black leading man. 


Ironically, though, the movie that won Poitier his Best Actor Oscar doesn’t tackle racism at all. Produced during a period of racial violence in America, Lilies of the Field takes place in an almost utopian universe, where people of all ethnicities, creeds, and nationalities work together for the common good. Poitier portrays an almost Christ-like figure in this soft, often humorous, feel-good movie about the simple joys and rewards of a cooperative existence. 

In arid Arizona, traveling independent contractor Homer Smith (Poitier) stops at a rustic farm to fill up his radiator.  Stubborn Mother Maria (Lilia Skala) heads the small group of East German holy women. She allows him to have the water he needs if he agrees to stay overnight and fix a leaky roof the next morning. 


Of course, it doesn’t take long for mother superior to see how handy this strapping, stubborn young man is. She believes him to be an answer to the nuns’ prayers, a holy gift sent by God to help them construct a modest chapel on their land. Though the nuns have no money, no materials, and barely enough food to feed themselves, they somehow convince this Southern Baptist to stay every time he threatens to leave. 

Though Homer isn’t Catholic, he is still of the greater faith of which all God-fearing men subscribe: that of leaving the world a little better than how you found it. He helps the nuns learn English (even teaches them some Baptist music) and secures a part-time job with a local contractor. He also gets a ragtag collection of local farmers and workers to donate their time, resources, and money to the chapel project. Frank Capra would be proud!


Amazingly, this isolated region in the American southwest is blissfully free of color lines and immune to ethnic prejudices. Homer’s skin color is barely a topic of conversation and, though there are language barriers between the German nuns and the Mexican workers, everyone can understand the basic tenets of hard work and helping one’s fellow man. 


As Homer warms up to the chapel-building project, he recognizes an opportunity to deliver his signature project. At the end, he writes his name where only God can see it, perhaps symbolizing that Homer, who clearly has some things to work out with God, has satisfied some interior need. 

 Because we live in a world chock full of gifted black actors, it’s easy to take Poitier for granted today. Heavyweights like Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, and Samuel L. Jackson make it almost impossible to think that Poitier once stood alone for so many, many years. The pressure Poitier must have felt to select meaningful and creative projects that would help his fellow men and women succeed in the industry was probably overwhelming…but he never let that stress show. His ability to project the black experience on film has given him the opportunity to create inspirational and meaningful performances that earn lasting respect. 


Homer Smith is one such performance. While it may not possess the intensity and bravado of some of his flashier roles, it certainly gives us the whole Poitier package. Much like Homer was a heavenly gift to the nuns, Poitier was a towering figure for moviegoers, a man who helped facilitate real, lasting change.

 

Tom Jones

Director: Tony Richardson

Starring: Albert Finney, Susannah York, Hugh Griffith, Edith Evans, Joan Greenwood, Diane Cilento, George Devine, David Tomlinson, Rosalind Atkinson, Wilfred Lawson, Rosalind Knight, Jack MacGowran, Freda Jackson, David Warner, Joyce Redman, James Cairncross, Rachel Kempson, Peter Bull, Angela Baddeley, George A. Cooper, Jack Stewart, Patsy Rowlands, John Moffatt, Avis Bunnage, Mark Dignam, Michael Brennan, Lynn Redgrave, Redmond Phillips, Julian Glover

Oscar Wins: Best Music (Music Score - Substantially Original), Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Best Director, Best Picture

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Albert Finney), Best Art Direction (Color), Best Supporting Actress (Dame Edith Evans), Best Supporting Actress (Diane Cilento), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Best Supporting Actress (Joyce Redman)


If you look at the movies that won Best Picture in the 1960’s, most of them are big, spectacular productions or musicals like West Side Story, Laurence of Arabia, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and Oliver. The two outliers included The Apartment, which was about as far from ‘spectacular production’ as you could get, and Tom Jones, a British rom-com period piece that’s one part Barry Lyndon, one part Austin Powers, and in no part worthy of Best Picture (though, to be fair, none of the movies this year really were IMHO).


Yet, Tom Jones was a critical and commercial smash, not only winning Best Picture, but Best Director, Best Score, Best Adapted Screenplay and receiving several acting nominations. Made for a modest $1 million, it brought in $20 million just during its initial run. 

Why? Could be that the British sauciness that was common across the pond was new to most mainstream American audiences. Its sex-heavy storyline certainly went against the Production Code that had made it near impossible for movies to explore anything racy up until the swinging 60s – though looking at this movie now, it’s honestly so tame that it could air on TV without any cuts or dubs. 


Another reason, and probably the main one, is that American audiences had limited exposure to British comedies prior to Tom Jones. The majority of British comedies received small distribution so, for most moviegoers, Tom Jones was an entirely new experience.


The plot is pretty straightforward – Tom Jones (Albert Finney) was a child born out of wedlock and raised by Squire Allworthy (George Devine), who took him in as his own son. Tom jumps from bed to bed and sword fight to sword fight until he’s eventually cast out of London because of this wild and salacious behavior. 

Along the way he falls for Sophie Western (Susannah York), but his “bastard” status makes him unequivocally beneath her high station. Plus, there’s the fact that Tom can’t help but bed down every woman who so much as looks at him. The rest of this very long movie simply follows Tom through his various sexual escapades. At the end, all the characters reunite in London where secrets are revealed, the villains get their comeuppances, and love conquers all.


Besides Tom’s philandering, there’s really no conflict in Tom Jones – leaving plenty of time for deer hunts (which was actually pretty cool), playful incest, and a lengthy 9 ½ Weeks-esque sequence with Tom and one of his conquests stoking their libidos while gnawing on shellfish, chicken legs, and juicy pears.

Like its title character, Tom Jones is a movie that thinks a lot of itself. It tries hard to be artistic and avant-garde, with characters often breaking the fourth wall and an opening sequence that pays homage to the silent films – which seems completely pointless, given its 18th century setting. Worst of all is the use of fast-motion, which works for slapstick comedies, but feels totally out of place here. 


Yet, Tom Jones makes no apologies for what it is. It aims to please and, with all the styles thrown into it, you’re bound to find at least something you like. It falls considerably short of my idea of a masterpiece, let alone a film I’d recommend or watch again, but unlike many of the dumb movies winning awards and nominations in recent decades, Tom Jones remains a breezy, enjoyable romp.

 

How the West Was Won

Directors: Henry Hathaway, John Ford, George Marshall

Starring: Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Carroll Baker, Debbie Reynolds, Karl Malden, Agnes Moorehead, Walter Brennan, Brigid Bazlen, Gregory Peck, Robert Preston, Thelma Ritter, David Brian, George Peppard, Andy Devine, Harry Morgan, John Wayne, Russ Tamblyn, Raymond Massey, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, Lee J. Cobb, Eli Wallach, Carolyn Jones, Mickey Shaughnessy

Oscar Wins: Best Film Editing, Best Writing (Original Story and Screenplay), Best Sound

Other Nominations: Best Music (Music Score - Substantially Original), Best Art Direction (Color), Best Picture, Best Costume Design (Color), Best Cinematography (Color)


How the West Was Won is an epic movie in every sense of the word. First off, it’s long. Clocking in at just about 3 hours, this movie is a time commitment. Secondly, it covers a lot of ground. Beginning in the 1830s and ending in the 1890s, this episodic film is broken into five (FIVE!) chapters. Third, the cast is insane. There are the regular stars that lighten up the western sky (John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, Andy Devine), as well as other recognizable faces of the day (Debbie Reynolds, Agnes Moorehead, Robert Preston, Eli Wallach, Henry Fonda). Fourth, the movie needed not one, not two, but THREE directors, including genre-staple John Ford. Finally, the movie was shot using Cinerama, a crazy complicated widescreen process that used three cameras and was meant to wrap around the audience on curved screens (similar to IMAX). 

The unifying thread throughout the film is that the main characters are members of the Prescott family, starting their journey out west. We’re introduced to the four main players in the first chapter (‘The Rivers’). Dad (Karl Malden), Mom (Agnes Moorehead), and sisters Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) and Eve (Carroll Baker) are heading down the Erie Canal when they come upon a fur trapper named Linus (James Stewart). It’s love at first sight for Eve, but he’s all “sorry, babe – I’m not a one-woman man”. 


But a man can be worn down. He and Eve decide to settle down into homesteading while Lilith heads to St. Louis, taking us into our next chapter, ‘The Plains’.

While performing in St. Louis, Lilith receives news of an inheritance – a California gold mine – which attracts the attention of two suitors, a gambler (Gregory Peck) and a wagon master (Robert Preston). The wagon master constantly comments on Lilith’s body and how much he wants to put a baby in her. Needless to say, she’s not impressed. She finally marries the gambler. They settle down and have a son.


The rest of the chapters (‘The Civil War’, ‘The Railroad’, and ‘The Outlaws’) follow Zeb (George Peppard), Eve and Linus’s oldest son, as he fights in the Battle of Shiloh, becomes an army officer during the construction of the railroad, then eventually tries to prevent a group of outlaws from stealing a shipment of gold. As each story progresses through time, the Prescott family experience all the cliches of the Western genre, including clashes with the Native Americans, gunfights on horseback, and those tight pants that show off those little butts! 

Like most westerns, the thing that strikes you first while watching How the West Was Won is the cinematography. This is the West of lore, complete with lots of singing and dancing, music on the patio, colorful horizons and a surprising lack of violence. Wide Cinerama shots put you right in the story, literally surrounding you with landscape.


Yet, in an effort to tell this gargantuan story, How the West Was Won conveniently glances over things like racism, war, hatred, bigotry, and other realistic depictions of this brutal period in American history. I guess when you’re telling 60 years’ worth of history, you can’t cover everything, right?


As it stands, How the West Was Won spends more time on its individual ingredients than the recipe. It gives us a lot of half-developed characters who represent stereotypical Western archetypes and throws them into situations we’ve seen over and over again. But, that’s not to say this is a bad movie – because it’s not. It’s a worthwhile experience that’s not so much a snapshot of American history as it is a snapshot of the early 1960s film industry. Perhaps it should have been called “How the West Was Done…in Hollywood.”

 

America, America

Director: Elia Kazan

Starring: Stathis Giallelis, Frank Wolff, Harry Davis, Elena Karam, Estelle Hemsley, Gregory Rozakis, Lou Antonio, Salem Ludwig, John Marley, Joanna Frank, Paul Mann, Linda Marsh, Robert H. Harris, Katharine Balfour

Oscar Wins: Best Art Direction (Black and White)

Other Nominations: Best Director, Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Best Picture


When it comes to filmmaking, ‘labors of love’ are a tricky business. It can be hard for viewers to really grasp the passion the filmmaker has for the material at hand. America, America is often described as filmmaker Elia Kazan’s greatest labor of love. It is a harrowing story of his uncle’s journey from Turkey to America and, some say, very accurately describes the immigrant experience. However, America, America is also a film that’s particularly laborious to sit through. 


Proof that a mother’s love is blind, Kazan’s movie – which is based on a book he also wrote – is an emotionally draining three-hour cinematic reminder that sometimes writing what you know is a recipe for disaster. Oftentimes the closer you are to something, the harder it is to remain objective. 

America, America is essentially three different stories. The first part is an introduction into the life of Stavros Topouzoglou (Stathis Giallelis), Kazan’s uncle, and the massacre of the Armenians and Greeks that was happening near the beginning of the twentieth century. Stavros’ father sends him to Constantinople for work, hoping he can earn enough money to bring the rest of the family along with him. 


The second part is all struggles, as Stavros deals with a number of hardships including theft, hard labor, affairs, and poverty. In order to raise the funds he needs to travel to America, he becomes engaged to Thomna (Linda Marsh), the daughter of a wealthy merchant (Paul Mann – the best part of this slog). His goal is to use the dowry to pay for his passage to America. 

The final movement depicts the journey to New York City, which Stavros pays for through having an affair with the wealthy American, Sophia (Katharine Balfour). And while immigrants certainly struggled to make a life for themselves in America (language barriers, housing, jobs, food, etc.), Stavros – and the film for that matter – are not concerned about what happens once he arrives; all the importance is placed on what it takes to get there. 


The immigrant experience is nothing new to Americans – after all, pretty much every single one of us was brought here by past family members hoping for a better life. Many of our ancestors were fleeing turmoil, genocide, and oppression – so Stavros’ story is really nothing new. I think what would have made a better movie is if we saw how Stavros made something of himself in America…how he raised enough money, as he promised, to bring almost his entire family to live with him – one by one. That’s a story unique to Stavros, and one that would inspire, as well as entertain. 

In an effort to make his story as believable as possible, Kazan cast many unknown actors in his film. A lot of the cast (actual people from Greece and Turkey) had to be dubbed…and most of them are not dubbed in authentic cadences; therefore, you have a bunch of Greeks and Turks with a New York drawl before they even step foot in the Big Apple. Giallelis, who played Stavros like a Greek James Dean, was also not great with dialogue, so he mostly just stands around glowering at the world, not the best company for a three-hour run time. 


While I wasn’t a fan of the end result, there’s no denying that this personal opus was made with the very best intentions and for all the right reasons. Setting out to pay tribute to his family tree, Kazan brought a harrowing story to life with very obvious commitment. The black and white cinematography gives this film a dreamy feel, like that of a distant memory, which it certainly is. His fans may love and appreciate it much like those who love Steven Spielberg may love and appreciate The Fabelmans. While it may not be my cup of tea, it’s still a powerful story about the American Dream and the nightmare of an experience that many people had trying to achieve it.

 

Cleopatra

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Pamela Brown, George Cole, Hume Cronyn, Cesare Danova, Kenneth Haigh, Andrew Keir, Martin Landau, Roddy McDowall, Robert Stephens, Francesca Annis, Gregoire Aslan, Martin Benson, Herbert Berghof, John Cairney, Jacqui Chan, Isabelle Cooley, John Doucette, Andrew Faulds, Michael Gwynn, Michael Hordern, John Hoyt, Marne Maitland, Carroll O'Connor, Richard O'Sullivan, Gwen Watford, Douglas Wilmer, Marina Berti, John Karlsen, Loris Loddi, Jean Marsh, Gin Mart, Furio Meniconi, Del Russell, Kenneth Nash, John Valva, Finlay Currie, Laurence Naismith

Oscar Wins: Best Special Effects, Best Costume Design (Color), Best Cinematography (Color), Best Art Direction (Color)

Other Nominations: Best Sound, Best Music (Music Score - Substantially Original), Best Film Editing, Best Actor (Rex Harrison), Best Picture


She ruled the Egyptian empire for nearly 20 years yet, when people think of Cleopatra, they usually picture Elizabeth Taylor. Though it’s more based on Shakespeare’s interpretation and Roman propaganda rather than actual history, this telling of the great queen’s life is easily one of the quintessential Hollywood films of all time. It’s perhaps the best example of the grand, epic, stupid indulgence that has wowed audiences for years – but is bigger always better?


Adjusted for inflation, Cleopatra is one of the most expensive films of all time. Exotic locales, flashy technology, thousands of costumes, massive sets, and armies of humans turned this into a literal perfect storm. While it was the highest grossing film of the year, it still wasn’t enough to make up the budget and the film very nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. The five-year filming schedule endured multiple stars, multiple directors, multiple screenplays, and a whole lot of gossipy drama involving the torrid love affair between Taylor and her co-star and off-screen lover, Richard Burton.

 Cleopatra also holds the record for being the longest movie nominated for Best Picture (over 4 hours including credits). Originally slotted to be two separate films, this bloated period-piece condenses almost 20 years into one cinematic sitting. I made it through this one, so Lawrence of Arabia should be nothing, right?!


 In 48 BC, Julius Ceasar (Rex Harrison) arrives in Rome to mediate between the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra (Taylor) and her co-ruling brother. Cleopatra persuades Caesar to help her regain the throne as the sole monarch. In the process, the two begin an affair that produces a son. Her growing family only works to encourage Cleopatra in her quest to build a world empire.

Eventually she travels to Rome where she is very unpopular due to her influence with Caesar. While there, she catches the eye of Caesar’s army general, Mark Anthony (Burton), who helps her return to Egypt after the Ides of March so rudely interrupts Caesar’s ascension to power.

Rome is then plunged into a civil war from which Mark Anthony and Caesar’s appointed successor, Octavian (Roddy McDowall) emerge victorious. Mark Anthony arranges a meeting with Cleopatra to re-establish ties, triggering a steamy affair that becomes the catalyst for their destruction.


Historically, Cleopatra was an intelligent woman who studied architecture. She loved reading and was said to speak several languages. Unfortunately, we don’t get much of that girl power in this film. Taylor’s Cleopatra is overly sexualized, constantly overshadowed by her male counterparts, and treated like a child. In the scene where Caesar and Cleopatra fight about her brother’s army, the camera lingers on Taylor holding a sheet over her naked body. This takes away from the importance of the scene, which outlines how Cleopatra may lose her stability as a ruler. Instead, we’re forced to focus on the romance building between Caesar and Cleopatra (as well as her boobies, which we see a LOT).

In a later scene, she is carried around by a guard like a scorned child after another argument. “Take your hands off me!” she screams, but no one listens. Hardly the way to treat a queen. Can you imagine Queen Elizabeth allowing such treatment?


Though there is plenty to criticize about Cleopatra, there’s much to admire. The costumes, while not historically accurate, are stunning. This is 5th Avenue 1960s glamor brought to you by 40 BC costume designers. For Taylor alone, the costume budget was almost $1.5 million (adjusted for inflation), which is hilarious because there seems to be less and less fabric being used as the movie progresses…


The sets were also incredible, the biggest of which was Cleopatra’s golden barge which cost about $2 million (adjusted for inflation) to construct.

But perhaps the biggest draw, at least for 1960s audiences, was the rumored affair happening behind the scenes. Stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were both married to other people at the time, but their affair became the talk of the town – mostly because neither one of them made any effort whatsoever to hide it. They were often seen in public together and essentially let the rumor mill run crazy. Not only would Cleopatra mark the beginning of their onscreen union, it would also set off one of the craziest hot-and-cold Hollywood romances of all time.


Ironically, you’d have no idea how hot and heavy these two were behind the scenes from watching them act. Taylor and Burton make for a lousy pair of screen lovers. They had more passion hating each other just three years later in the arguably better, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. It sucks because by the time these two are both on screen at the same time, we’re already more than 2 hours into the film. Worse still, their lack of chemistry causes the remaining 2 hours to drag to a long, melodramatic close.


In the end, Cleopatra is not a movie you watch for historical accuracy. Like Gone with the Wind, Titanic, hell, even Jurassic Park, this is a movie aimed to entertain. Whether you watch it for the costumes, the set designs, or just to see Elizabeth Taylor’s banging body, chances are you won’t be disappointed.

 






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