Monday, February 16, 2009

THE 1960's IN FILM


1965: Still reeling from the financial debacle that was Cleopatra, Fox released their filmic adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s last notable stage success The Sound of Music without much fanfare or expectation. Though director Robert Wise had been granted permission to shoot his film in Austria, inclement weather forced the production back to Hollywood for most of the interiors. Nevertheless, The Sound of Music proved a sleeper hit, garnering renewed business and gradually building a reputation as one of the best musical entertainments to be released in a long while.

British film star, Julie Christie had her breakout performance and won the Best Actress Oscar for ‘Darling’, a film that cast her as a disreputable social climber who uses sex as a weapon to get what she wants. Christie also appeared as Lara, the ill-fated love to a Russian poet in David Lean’s masterful epic, Doctor Zhivago. Based on the novel by Joseph Pasternak (a book banned in his native Russia for some years to come), the film initially did poor business, though it gradually garnered a following to become one of the most successful releases of this year.

Hollywood afforded two bio pics to screen legend Jean Harlow: the first starring Carroll Baker, the second Carol Lynley. Neither proved memorable. Lawrence Olivier directed himself in an uninspired version of his stage celebrated Othello. Blake Edwards’ The Great Race was a lavish, though turgid and, at times, utterly boring, spectacle about a series of speed car enthusiasts set to compete in a global trek for prize money. Sean Connery starred in The Hill, a brutal WWII melodrama, but increasingly found that he could not escape his alter ego, James Bond in the public’s estimation.
Thunderball became the first James Bond movie to be shot in Panavision, easily out grossing all other films in the Bond franchise and raising Bond-mania in America and Britain to an all time high. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, starring Richard Burton, illustrated a much darker reality of being a spy.

Charlton Heston was miscast twice; first as The War Lord, then as Major Dundee – his larger than life acting style somewhat incongruously matched to less than grand material. Heston did prove a fitting match as Michelangelo opposite Rex Harrison in The Agony and The Ecstasy; though Carol Reed’s direction lacked…well…direction – occasionally bringing the story to a dead halt. Despite a cast of stellar actors at his disposal, director George Steven’s attempt at making Jesus Christ a superstar in The Greatest Story Ever Told was more laborious than epic.

The year was marred by the loss of many great talents, among them songstress Jeanette MacDonald, ‘IT’ girl Clara Bow, comedians Constance Bennett and Margaret Dumont, tough guy Steve Cochran, Everett Sloane, Mary Boland and Stan Laurel. Cancer claimed one of the all time truly gifted comedians, Judy Holliday much too soon.
Premature too was the loss of sultry Dorothy Dandridge who died mysteriously in her hotel room. Linda Darnell was consumed in a tragic house fire in Vancouver. Producer David O. Selznick, who never entirely recovered his reputation as a film pioneer after the release of Gone With The Wind also died, leaving behind a legacy of independent productions unlikely to be surpassed.

1966 was the year television paid $2,000,000.00 for the rights to air The Bridge on the River Kwai in prime time. Overnight, Hollywood’s more recent films became fodder to fill programming on major networks. It mattered not that these movies were interrupted by commercials or that their expansive 2:35:1 aspect ratios were now severely cropped to fit the less than forgiving 4:3 screen. Audiences who had fallen in love with movies like ‘Kwai’ at their local movie palace were rekindling their memories in the comfort of their own homes.
The Best Picture of the year was Fred Zinnemann’s A Man For All Seasons; a compelling character study immeasurably nourished by Paul Scofield’s indelible performance as Sir Thomas Moore. As big a hit as the film was, Zinnemann’s other endeavor of year – the epically mounted ‘Hawaii’ – proved an abysmal flop.

Elizabeth Taylor gave a scathingly acidic performance as the frustrated, embittered hag of a university professor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It won Taylor her second Oscar as Best Actress. In the looser moral code of the ‘60s, Michael Caine became an overnight sex symbol after playing naughty playboy, Alfie.
John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix was exhilarating in its racing sequences, even as the melodramatic back story of racing enthusiasts and their groupies putting it all on the line left something to be desired.

Charlton Heston and Lawrence Olivier sparred against the exotic backdrop of Khartoum; one of the last big epics produced by Julian Blaustein. Lana Turner had a big hit with Douglas Sirk’s rather soapy remake of Madame X. Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn made a winning pair in the frothy comedy with class, How To Steal a Million, directed by William Wyler. Director Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles was a fairly compelling sea epic set in Red Chinese waters and starring Steve McQueen.

Perhaps the most perplexing of the year’s misfires was Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, a project that unfortunately ended his longtime collaboration with composer Bernard Hermann. The film starred Paul Newman as a double agent and Julie Andrews as his confused fiancée. Unfortunately, Newman’s method acting and Hitchcock’s meticulous attention to camera design did not happily coincide. Worse, the onscreen chemistry between Newman and Andrews was practically nonexistent.

The world of entertainment lost Buster Keaton, Francis X Bushman, Hedda Hopper, Clifton Webb and Herbert Marshall among others.
No loss was more heartfelt or internationally mourned than that of Walt Disney; dead at the age of 65 following surgery for lung cancer. Disney, who had pioneered the feature length animated motion picture and created the ideal template for what is today considered the ‘theme park’ with Disneyland, was preparing The Jungle Book at the time of his death. The film would go on to be one of the studios’ most popular.

1967 proved the last year for discernable dualities between the old and new in American cinema. On the one hand, Hollywood mounted some thoroughly engaging old time fun; musicals Thoroughly Modern Millie, Half a Six Pence, Doctor Doolittle, Star!, The Happiest Millionaire and Camelot. Unfortunately, only ‘Millie’ proved a winner with audiences; a farcical glance at 1920s flapper chic wrapped inside a white slave trade mystery.

Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner was a gentle, if thought provoking exercise in tolerance; tenderly nursing the pensive subject of race relations into the public spotlight. Undoubtedly more frank and less forgiving on such discussion was In The Heat of The Night; costarring Sidney Poitier, as a committed attorney and Rod Steiger as a racist sheriff. Both men discover an unlikely alliance, mutual understanding and friendship while attempting to solve a murder in a small, but bigoted southern town.

Other notable productions of the year included Far From The Madding Crowd – a meticulous recreation of Thomas Hardy’s England costarring Terrance Stamp, Julie Christie, Alan Bates and Peter Finch; Blow Up – a depiction of London’s swinging mod scene with David Hemmings discovering a murder being committed in one of the photographs he’s taken, and, the counterculture WWII action movie The Dirty Dozen, about a team of criminals and reprobates being trained by the U.S. military for a suicide mission inside Nazi Germany.

On the other hand, violence was steadily replacing spectacle as the big box office draw with Cool Hand Luke and Bonnie And Clyde raising the bar on acceptable levels of screen brutality. Expressing a personal interest to pursue other avenues as an actor, Sean Connery appeared in his second to last Bond film; You Only Live Twice.

Mike Nichol’s The Graduate proved an unlikely sleeper hit, making relative unknown Dustin Hoffman a movie star overnight.
Initial reaction from critics, as per the casting of Hoffman to play the emotionally stunted Benjamin who has an affair with his parents’ close friend, Mrs. Robinson, were negative to cruel. The hero of the original had been a blonde haired, blue eyed Adonis. Casting against type, Nichols found Hoffman more endearing and realistic. So did audiences.
With its nonlinear narrative, Stanley Donen’s Two For The Road was ahead of its time. Despite winning performances from Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn the film found limited favor with audiences. Hepburn had greater success and popularity with Wait Until Dark; the story of a blind woman terrorized by a trio of drug dealers. It was a project personally produced by her former husband Mel Ferrer.

On the misfire side of things: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had their first flop as a couple with a turgid adaptation of Graham Green’s The Comedians. John Huston’s Reflections In A Golden Eye, the story of marital infidelities on a military base also did nothing to advance Taylor’s career – this time cast opposite Marlon Brando. Huston’s original intent was to have the entire film photographed in sepia; a devise overruled by Jack Warner who fired Huston from the project and had the film re-cut and re-tinted.

Charlie Chaplin’s return to directing with A Countess from Hong Kong was utterly disappointing. Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book – an adaptation largely removed from Rudyard Kipling’s beloved children’s story and heavily driven by star character vocalizations - proved the last animated feature to bear Uncle Walt’s personal stamp of approval. It was a colossal hit with the kiddies, despite being derided by most critics.
Death claimed two of Hollywood’s greatest stars: Spencer Tracy and Vivian Leigh. Tracy had just finished shooting Guess Whose Coming to Dinner and did not live to see the finished film. Leigh died backstage from a fatal bout of tuberculosis. Entertainment also lost character actors Mischa Auer, Charles Bickford, Jane Darwell, Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains. Sexpot and Marilyn Monroe knock off Jayne Mansfield was decapitated in a horrific automobile accident.

Until 1968, Hollywood had remained rather circumspect about human sexuality despite the fact that the self regulating production code of motion picture standards had, for some years, fallen by the waste side. However, by 1968 porn and underground films were reaching a much larger cross section of the American public, forcing the industry to go for more obvious and explicit entertainments. Paul Morrissey’s Flesh and Russ Meyer’s Vixen were just two examples of this looming sex-ploitation.

On the whole and with rare exception, Hollywood went for grit rather than glamour. Tony Curtis reinvented his pretty boy personality as The Boston Strangler. Steve McQueen drove a harrowing car chase in the no holds barred detective/thriller, Bullitt. Clint Eastwood’s high plains drifter was brutalized in Hang ‘Em High.

John Wayne bucked the trend, proving that pride of American militarism was still appealing film fair with The Green Berets, despite some vehement opposition from anti-war protest groups who pigeon marked Wayne as a lumbering relic pitted against their anti-Viet Nam propaganda. Roman Polanski’s American debut, Rosemary’s Baby, proved a particularly terrifying portrait of satanic worship amongst the elderly.
Sci-fi had its mixed blessings in 1968. Barbarella was a bizarre intergalactic sex-kitten fantasy starring Jane Fonda in skimpy latex and plastic outfits. Charlton Heston wore practically nothing as he gave an uncharacteristically bleak performance in the watershed thriller, Planet of the Apes. But undoubtedly, the most intellectually stimulating of the lot was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – a hypnotic journey to the outer reaches of the infinite. Time has since proven Kubrick’s film far more science, than fiction.

Romance was more flawed than tragic in the movies. Franco Zefferelli’s take on Romeo and Juliet was hailed as a masterpiece, though time has not been kind to the adolescent renderings from Leonard Whiting or Olivia Hussey. In more contemporary times, Faye Dunaway unsuccessfully attempted to snare herself a thief and a hubby in The Thomas Crown Affair, costarring Steve McQueen as a multimillionaire who robs banks for a thrill.

On opposite ends of the musical spectrum there was the colossal crash and burn of Star! – 20th Century-Fox’s gargantuan, if flawed, valentine to stage legend Gertrude Lawrence starring Julie Andrews, and, Columbia’s world wide success with Carol Reed’s rather turgid recreation of Dickensian London in Oliver! – the film that took home the year’s Oscar for Best Picture.
Somewhere between these two was Francis Ford Coppola’s Finian’s Rainbow – a badly dated, budget restricted mish-mash that nevertheless afforded audiences one last look at the ageless brilliance of Fred Astaire.
For only the second time in the history of the Academy Awards, the Oscar vote for Best Actress was split down the middle; with newcomer to films Barbra Streisand and veteran screen legend Katharine Hepburn sharing the award for their performances in Funny Girl and The Lion In Winter respectively.
While audiences thrilled at the filmic debuts of Genevieve Bujold, Beau Bridges, Katherine Ross and John Voight, the world of entertainment lost film legends Tallulah Bankhead, Franchot Tone, Dorothy Gish and Mae Murray. Director Anthony Asquith, who directed two of the 60s most popular ensemble melodramas - The VIP’s and The Yellow Rolls-Royce - also died, as did director Robert Z. Leonard.
But the most chillingly bizarre death of the year belonged to silent screen legend, Ramon Navarro – the original Ben-Hur. Found bound and sexually brutalized in the bedroom of his mansion, it was later determined that the bisexual Navarro had been the victim of a pair of gay hustlers.

Everything about 1969 seemed to suggest counterculture; particularly audiences’ aversion to lavishly appointed traditional fair. Sweet Charity, based on the Fellini film Nights in Calabria and re-envisioned on the Broadway stage by choreographer/director Bob Fosse was a colossal misfire. In adapting this tender tale of a taxi dancer desperate to eschew ‘the life’ Fosse ran amuck of the narrative with some garish and weighty tripe.
MGM, who had spent the decade on the verge of financial ruin, attempted to resurrect one of their all time 1939 weepies, Goodbye, Mr. Chips for a new generation. But the subtle magic and tender poignancy of the original story painfully eluded Peter O’Toole and Petula Clark – both miscast in this musical version, void of a single spark of creative originality.
The same could not be said of Hello Dolly! – a brilliantly conceived, gargantuan, yet buoyant musical mélange that tragically came at the end of that popularity cycle and love affair between audiences and movie musicals. Behind the scenes, a mutual hatred between Barbra Streisand and costar Walter Matthau made for daily conflicts and many a backstage headache for director Gene Kelly, though none of this animosity reflected itself on the big screen.

Critical and audience praise instead focused on the more daring testaments of that year: Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch – a sort of anti-heroic western celebrating the lawlessness of a troop of reprobates; the youth-orientated drug and hippie culture love in – Easy Rider – and ‘Z’, a foreign made political thriller/melodrama. Veteran director Henry Hathaway and John Wayne had their biggest hit with True Grit – the film that won Duke his long overdue Best Actor Oscar.

Taking over the role of James Bond from Sean Connery, George Lazenby made ample eye candy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – one of the most intricate and intensely written movies in the Bond franchise. Unfortunately, ego preceded stardom for Lazenby and his contract was promptly canceled by producer Cubby Broccoli following the film’s rather tepid response at the box office.
Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice extolled the virtues and vices of the swinger’s scene. Liza Minnelli stepped outside the musical genre with an uncharacteristically powerful performance in The Sterile Cuckoo, while Ingrid Bergman could be seen jazzing it up along side Goldie Hawn in the offbeat comedy, Cactus Flower. The Battle of Britain proved to be the heavyweight of the year, as one critic put it, “containing more guest stars than airplanes.”

British actress, Maggie Smith had a pair of winners with the musical ‘Oh What A Lovely War’, and the scintillating melodrama ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ – the latter winning her the Best Actress Academy Award. Paul Newman and Robert Redford were costarred in the playful, yet serious Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – the best of the revisionist westerns though Sergio Leone’s lengthy Once Upon A Time In The West was the culmination of the best of his particular brand in spaghetti westerns.

For period melodrama there was nothing to touch the sparing between Richard Burton as Henry VIII and Genevieve Bujold as the title character in Anne of the Thousand Days – a brilliantly conceived screen adaptation of the stage hit. It was a busy year for Burton, who also appeared opposite Clint Eastwood, hanging up his spurs in the WWII adventure yarn, Where Eagles Dare. Burton’s most uncharacteristic performance of the year was as Rex Harrison’s pert and witty gay lover in Stanley Donen’s Staircase.

Hollywood said goodbye to too many stellar talents this year; directors Josef von Sternberg and Leo McCarey and actors Robert Taylor, Boris Karloff and Jeffrey Hunter among them. The little girl with the big voice, Judy Garland, tragically died of an accidental drug overdose in London. Her New York funeral drew more than 200,000 weeping fans.
But the most haunted of passages went to rising film star Sharon Tate; the pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski, who was brutally slaughtered in her home along with other guests by a brainwashed group of ‘worshipers’ following warped counterculture guru Charles Manson.

By the end of the ‘60s, Hollywood turned yet another corner – away from home grown studio projects toward a more streamlined policy of providing rental facilities for independent producers. Gone or retired were the veteran alumni who had developed not only the system for making movies, but also the trademark of individualized studio styles.
The early part of the 1970s mirrored this trend toward smaller movies. Several major studios became the target of hostile corporate takeovers with MGM – once the biggest and arguably, the best of the lot - closing up shop entirely after being sold to Las Vegas financier Kirk Kerkorian. Many critics pondered the future of Hollywood in general. But the era of the blockbuster was just around the corner.
@Nick Zegarac 2009 (all rights reserved).