By John H. Foote
The war in Vietnam. The assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, his brother Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and Civil Rights leader Dr Martin Luther King. The race into space. The Hippy culture. The drug culture. Counter culture. The sexual revolution. The youth movement. Woodstock.
Make love, not war.
Never trust anyone over thirty.
What we have here is a failure to communicate.
Beads, flowers, freedom, happiness…
1 2 3 4…we don’t want your fucking war.
As Bob Dylan mournfully sang about the sixties, “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and indeed they were. After years of prosperity and relative peace, the sixties seemed to erupt like a volcano, bringing sweeping change to America, massive changes to the arts, and a revolution in movies. Oddly, despite being the most popular art form, film was the last to change, but when the change came, it seemed to be overnight and launched a period, spilling into the seventies, that brought us some of the greatest films ever made.
From 1967 through 1982, films reflected the time, holding a mirror up to society, showing us what and who we were.
Through the sixties, Hollywood was at war with itself, resisting the change, the chaos, continuing to make big budget films that failed one by one at the box office and with critics. The Alamo (1960), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), Cleopatra (1963), Dr. Doolittle (1967), Star! (1968), Hello Dolly (1969), and Paint Your Wagon (1969) were crucified by the critics and huge duds at the box office. In a huge show of their power, the studios managed to get all but Star! (1968) and Paint Your Wagon (1969) nominated for Best Picture, which in all cases was simply shameful. Twice through the decade, 20th Century Fox teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, brought down by the terrible, big-budget films that drained their resources, putting nothing back. They were saved by Planet of the Apes (1968) which was a superb commentary of the times, more so than people realize. Unlike many films, the Apes story was ripe for a sequel, and in fact, four were made, each increasingly weaker than the previous, but just as successful. Fox was flush again, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) adding to their late sixties box office haul.
In 1969, the Academy Award-winning Best Picture was a shocker, the X rated character study Midnight Cowboy (1969). This ending the decade that began with West Side Story (1961) and Mary Poppins (1964)! The film was a startling, realistic film about two very different men bonding on the streets of New York out of pure instinct, that inherent need for survival. Prostitution, homosexuality, crime, brutal poverty, sexual liberation were all topics within the film. Frank language, nudity and sexuality ran rampant through this brilliant film. The times had changed indeed, and never again would things be as they had.
- LONG DAYS JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (1962)
Katherine Hepburn owned the sixties as Jane Fonda did the seventies and Meryl Streep has every decade since. Late in her career, Hepburn was a force of nature on screen, proving herself to be the most courageous woman in movies, adding to her Oscar streak, racking up more nominations, and winning twice more. After an array of simply remarkable performances in the fifties, she accepted, with some genuine fear the plum role of Mary Tyrone in the Sidney Lumet adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s greatest play. With her on the journey would be Ralph Richardson, the formidable British actor and young Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell as their sons. The film explores the painful dysfunction in the family as they struggle with the father’s tuberculosis and worse, Mary’s agonizing addiction to morphine which has got worse over the years, leaving her painfully addicted. Hepburn gives, in y opinion the finest performance of her career as Mary, the darkest work of her career. There is not a false note in her work, she is astonishing. With 12 Angry Men (1957) behind him, now this, Lumet was gaining great attention as an actors director, and the best work of his career was yet to come.
- TRUE GRIT (1969)
Henry Hathaway directed this old-fashioned western in which John Wayne creates a character and elevates him to a mythical status. Rooster Cogburn, a whiskey swilling, one-eyed tough old bird is a US Marshall hired by a young girl to find her fathers killer. Into the wilderness they go, seeking out a group of criminals led by one Lucky Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall) who Rooster knows all too well. Wayne is wonderfully entertaining in the film and finally won that long-elusive Oscar for Best Actor. In one sequence he is courage incarnate. Outnumbered four to one, all men on horseback, he sizes up the situation, spins his rifle and like a beaten up old knight from the time of King Arthur eases his mount ahead into battle. After trading insults with Lucky Ned, he furiously roars “fill your hand you son of a bitch” and takes a weapon in each hand, the reins in his teeth, and charges. True grit? You bet. A great American western. There is a single image of Wayne that defines the film. Henry Hathaway understood Wayne himself was near-mythic and shot him like that throughout the film to be larger than life.
- A LION IN WINTER (1968)
A rollicking adaptation of the hit play brings together Richard II and his imprisoned wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine with two grand actors in the roles and clearly having the time of their lives. Peter O’Toole was tapped to play the boisterous, lusty King, while Katherine Hepburn was cast as his Queen, a simply genius piece of casting. Though Hepburn won the Oscar for Best Actress, tying with Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl (1968). O’Toole was equally deserving and it was near criminal that he did not win. Watching them bounce off one another, cajole, teaser enrage and inspire the other is pure joy from start to finish. “I hope we never die” roars the wild old King to his Queen, who smiles at his jest but quietly thinking the same. Lucky for us, film is immortal, and so are their performances. Beautifully directed by Anthony Harvey, who has the good sense to put the camera down and turn them loose, he admitted his direction often consisted of saying “action” and “cut”. The actors had this. Indeed they did. Watch for a very young Anthony Hopkins as young Richard in the film. One of the great period pieces ever made.
- MARY POPPINS (1964)
Walt Disney had it all, everything that is except what he most coveted, an Academy Award-winning Best Picture. Despite groundbreaking feature films, animated, live action and documentaries, Disney believed an Oscar for Best Film would somehow legitimize he and his studio’s work. Whatever director Robert Stevenson wanted for this film he for, and the artists at Disney created pure movie magic in blending animation with live action. The background story of the making of the film was explored with great accuracy in Saving Mr. Banks (2013), but it was not, like Mary Poppins, a film for the ages. Already a Broadway star cruelly passed over for the film version of My Fair Lady (1964) a role she made famous, Julie Andrews was fortunate that it freed her to do this. She was an instant movie star, the camera adored her, she was a gifted singer, could dance, radiated love and good will, and the lady could act. She won an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance one of five the film won on a whopping thirteen nominations. But Best Picture was not among them, whispers of Disney’s sympathizing for Hitler came up yet again. A wonderous, lovely film, timeless, enjoyed by generations since. A sequel is due this winter.
- HUD (1963)
Paul Newman was in the sixties, the greatest actor in movies, fearless, willing to go all out and portray the first-class bastard, and that is what he is as Hud Brannon. The son of a decent, honest rancher, Hud is the black sheep, fighting, boozing, whoring, sleeping with married women, an embarrassment to his father. When the cattle become diseased, Hud wants to sell them quick before anyone notices, his callous attitude being “let the buyer beware”. However, his father, a man of honour knows that to do so could spread the disease across the United States, so despite Hud’s protests that his father is crazy, the cattle are killed and buried. Melvyn Douglas is exquisite as his father, Brandon de Wilde superb as the adoring youth who comes to realize what Hud is, and Patricia Neal won an Oscar as the housekeeper who in spite of what Hud is, loves him. Martin Ritt shot the film in black and white, which is perfection, as is Newman. A bold, brave performance.
- TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1961)
Gregory Peck was an actor of limited ability but in the right role, he could be very good. As Atticus Finch, the decent man, lawyer, widower and father, he is extraordinary, giving the performance of his career, earning the Academy Award. Raising his children in the terrible heat and poverty of the Depression, he ekes out a decent living as a lawyer. Much loved and respected in the town, Atticus does not see colour when it comes to skin, in his eyes all men are equal. Yet he understands not everyone shares that belief. When called upon to defend a decent black man accused of raping a white woman, even Atticus knows it is a lost cause. The audience sits knowing she is lying, knowing the jury is the worst kind of kangaroo court, but we also know this was the American south and nothing was ever fair. As Scout, the young daughter of Atticus, Mary Badham is a revelation as a child slowly being awakened to hate and racism, and learning not to believe all the gossip she hears. Robert Duvall made a superlative debut as Boo Ridley, both bogeyman, ultimately saviour to the children. Beautifully directed by Robert Mulligan, produced by Alan J. Pakula, who would after this, choose to direct.
- PSYCHO (1960)
For year’s horror films had been populated by creatures brought to life from dead tissue, mummies, werewolves, invisible men and vampires. With Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock created a monster from the most dangerous living thing walking the planet, man. Loosely based on the Ed Gein killings, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is an unassuming young man running a lonely motel. When Janet Leigh shows up, on the run, she is slaughtered in the shower by what appears to be a woman. Of course, it is Norman, who is a multi-personality victim, he is also his mother who has died and is kept stuffed in the attic. Truly frightening the film broke down many conventions in movies, the star killed off thirty minutes in, the shower killing is horrifying but not once do we see the knife pierce her flesh, audience members were not permitted to enter the cinema once the film began. Shot in 28 days for less than a million dollars, working in TV taught him how to shoot fast and economically. The film changed only everything about the horror genre.
- DR. ZHIVAGO (1965)
Based on the massive novel by Boris Pasternak, this was the last truly great film David Lean would direct, the end of an astonishing trilogy of work that began with a The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) was followed by the astounding Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Lean took his time making this one, and the artistry and care are in every frame. The movie is quite breathtaking, but one casting choice mars it from being a true masterpiece. Omar Sharif, an Egyptian was cast as Zhivago, a Russian. As good as Sharif was, and he did some fine work, this role was just not in him. Luckily he was surrounded by an international cast more than up to the challenge and a director who found beauty in the snowscapes and ice of northern Russia. The famous love story between Zhivago and the mysterious Lara (Julie Christie) helped make the film a huge success. At its core, the picture explores the end of the imperial system in Russia, the birth of communism. Stunning cinematography dominates the film, and there are great performances from Christie, Tom Courtney, Alec Guinness, Rod Steiger and Geraldine Chaplin. The score is haunting. When you think the next image cannot possibly be more astonishing, Lean tops it. How did this lose Best Picture and Director to, get ready, The Sound of Music (1965)?
- PLANET OF THE APES (1968)
Most people remember that stinger of an ending, the moment where Taylor (Charlton Heston) realizes he is on earth in the future, discovering the Statue of Liberty armpit deep in the sand. For years 20th Century Fox had tried to bring this story to the screen, but they could not beat the challenge of the makeup. John Chambers finally came up with startling makeup that turned the fine actors into simians, winning a special achievement Oscar for his work. Taylor (Charlton Heston) is one of a group of astronauts exploring deep space when his ship crash lands on a planet in the year 3955. He and his friends are stunned to learn Apes are the dominant species while humans are wild animals, dissected for science or hunted for sport. Wanting only to get away, Taylor befriends two scientists who marvel at his ability to speak, read, reason, but the apes in authority only fear him. The ending is a stunner, with Taylor coming face to face with an armpit in sand deep Statue of Liberty which tells him he is on earth, this is the future. A brilliant social satire, the film mirrors closely the war between youth and authority which was taking place in America. Heston was never better, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans and Roddy McDowell are mesmerizing as apes. This saved Fox Studios from bankruptcy, a smash hit which spawned four sequels, a TV show, an ill-fated remake, and then a superb overhaul with Andy Serkis as Caesar.
- WEST SIDE STORY (1961)
Dance had long been a language in cinema, but here in this gangland version of Romeo and Juliet, it goes further as a language than it ever had before, thanks to the absolute genius of choreographer Jerome Robbins, who co-directed the film with Robert Wise. Two star-crossed teens fall in love, knowing it can never be as one is Spanish, the other white. The rival gangs each belong with will not allow it, society will condemn their love. The fights are choreographed in ballet, jazz, modern dance, bringing a breathtaking energy to the screen that we had not experienced before. The performances from the young people are very good, best of all Rita Moreno who won an Oscar and George Chakiris who won too, both supporting roles, and we cannot take our eyes off them. The film won ten Academy Awards, amazing considering Wise and Robbins stopped speaking partway through production.
- COOL HAND LUKE (1967)
“What we have here, is a failure to communicate” the vicious warden roars as he beats Luke (Paul Newman) trying to hurt the petty criminal into being submissive. Sent to a harsh southern jail for taking the tops off parking meters, Luke finds prison a joke because the guards and warden actually believe they are going to break him or tell him what to do. No way. He rebels, winning the admiration and respect of the men when he is beaten to a pulp by Dragline (George Kennedy) who comes to love the man for his guts. Paul Newman gives the finest performance of his career and again deserved the Oscar for Best Actor he did not win. Kennedy earned one for Best Supporting Actor, and Strother Martin is horrifying as the pompous warden. That famous line became a war cry for American youth in the sixties and seventies.
- WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966)
The brilliant Edward Albee play about a dysfunctional marriage is a work of paralyzing power and raw,rage-filled power. Or a little more than two hours we watch as George, a college professor and his wife Martha tear into each other, declaring total war. Worse? They do his in front of their guests. First-time film director Mike Nichols a the toast of Broadway when given the job of bringing this to the screen, and he let no one down. Insisting on a real-life married couple, he shocked everyone going with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, hardly the braying, frumpy boozer described in the play. Yet Taylor responded with not only her greatest performance but one of the finest performances ever put on film. Gaining fifty pounds, told the camera would be up close and personal, she threw herself into the braying loudmouth and was simply astonishing. Burton matches her and the quieter however no less verbally lethal husband who has tired of her ways and lashes back worse than ever before. Taylor won the Oscar, burton should have too. In able support are Sandy Dennis and George Segal who look on in horror until they too are drawn into the games the two play. Simply brilliant.
- DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964)
Just a year after the Kennedy assassination, the Cuban Missle Crisis seared into the minds of Americans, Kubrick directed this scalding comedy about the end of the world. A goofy pilot, Major Kong (Slim Pickens) goes rogue, thinking he has been ordered to drop the bomb on Russia. Throughout the film we watch as the President of the United States tries to stop him, knowing Russia will counter-attack and bring about nuclear winter. The characters are broadly portrayed, the dialogue viciously black, and true to form, the film, remains black to the end, Kong riding the bomb down like a bucking bronco, a massive phallic symbol bringing the ultimate Big Bang. Peter Sellers is superb in several roles, most notably the President and Nazi Doctor. George C. Scott is all twisted rage, Sterling Hayden perfection. The script shines and Kubrick’s fearlessness was lost on no one. Imagine a black comedy about 9/11 just two years after it happened? Not a chance.
- THEY SHOOT HORSES DON’T THEY? (1969)
Nominated for nine Academy Awards, rave reviews, a stunning film, but not a Best Picture nominee. Incredibly. Sydney Pollack turned the dance marathon drama into a metaphor for life, giving Jane Fonda the role that made it clear she was a dramatic force to be reckoned with, no question she was Henry’s daughter. As Gloria, the cynical beauty beaten down by life, she spits her dialogue like a lethal cobra, the marathon is her last chance at any sort of life, but like everything in her life, she discovers it too is rigged. Pollack did an astonishing job of keeping the characters in motion, in constant motion throughout the picture. Supporting performances from Red Buttons (Oscar worthy), Gig Young (he won), Sarah Miles, Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedelia populate the film but make no mistake this is Fonda’s film. She is shattering as Gloria, who has reached the end of her rope. A stunning work of art with Fonda giving one of the screens most brilliant yet caustic performances. “Yowza, Yowza”…unforgettable.
- THE HUSTLER (1961)
Robert Rosen’s dark, troubling character study looks at the underbelly of the world of pool, the smoky rooms, the lamps lighting the table, the intense stare of the players as they line up their shots. As Fast Eddie Felton, Paul Newman was brilliant as a first class, selfish bastard who craves to be the best in the billiard hall, but first must conquer his demons which are fuelled by booze. He treats the woman who loves him like dirt, which is self-loathing he does not understand. Way ahead in his major game against the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) he gets cocky and the more experienced man destroys him. The next time, having been broken and hurt, Eddie wins handily, focused on the game, nothing else. Newman announced his arrival as one of the greats with this electrifying performance for which he deserved the Oscar. George C. Scott is demonic fury as Bert, his evil, twisted manager and Piper Laurie haunting as the woman who makes the mistake of loving Eddie, paying with her life. An angry masterpiece about people living in a dangerously dark work. Shot in atmospheric, near expressionistic black and white, this allows Rosen to capture with remarkable authenticity the gloomy, smoky pool halls that populate small town America.
- THE GRADUATE (1967)
The greatest comedy of the decade was a biting, brutally honest satire about a young college graduate trying to find his identity, and realizing he does not have one. Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) is brilliant but socially awkward, inept, painfully shy around women, and it turns out absolutely sexually inexperienced. Did you go to college? I did and had a blast, nothing like this. And of course, it is complicated when Ben enters into an affair with the sultry Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) his mother’s best friend. While he is being taught very heated lessons by day by Mrs. Robinson, at night he begins dating her daughter and announces they are in love. Of course, when Elain (Katherine Ross) finds out her man has been doing mom, all hell breaks loose. Mike Nichols directed this comedy with near surgical precision, said to have known exactly where the laughs were in the script. The satire explored the boring world the youth was about to inherit and they found ways to shake it up. The film never goes where you think it might, and ends with our young lovers together, but uncertain. Hoffman was an overnight sensation, Bancroft the subject of many a young man’s fantasy and Ross, our dream girl. The score was populated with current hits from the folksy group Simon and Garfunkel and is forever iconic. A comic masterpiece in every way.
- MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969)
As mentioned in the opening of this article, this X rated film won three Academy Awards including Best Picture. Now X was not so terrible in 1969, nothing worse than you might see on network television today, but in the late sixties, it was risky. Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is a well-endowed cowboy out of a dusty little town in Texas who believes New York women will pay to have sex with a real live cowboy, so wide-eyed and naive he arrives in the big city. Nothing really prepares Joe for what he finds, which is people who are rushing every where, indifferent to him, ladies who make fun of him, and a tubercular thief who takes advantage of his good nature, robbing him. Dustin Hoffman is barely recognizable as Ratso Rizzo, a pickpocket thief who robs Joe but then they forge a bond out of necessity, sharing a room in a condemned building. Believing the healing rays of the sun are his only chance against the disease killing him, they set their dreams on Florida, willing to do anything to get there. An honest and searing study of New York in the sixties. Brilliantly acted and directed, with John Scheslinger winning the Oscar as Best Director, much deserved. His camera seems always moving, filling the film with energy, the energy of a city in the throes of change.
- 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
Stanley Kubrick directed and wrote this blazing, original film that advanced the art of cinema language more so than Citizen Kane (1941) years before. With sparse dialogue, Kubrick tells a story that spans millions of years beginning at the dawn of man, where a group of near men encounter a monolith, black, in their camp. One of them touches it and gradually finds he can think, reason even. He realizes the bone he is playing with can kill animals for food and can drive away the other tribe that has taken their water hole. Flashing forward millions of years the monolith appears again on the moon, and again there is the advancement of intellect and again on Jupiter. The film for me is about the constant advancing of intelligence, of mankind moving forward. Unsettling is the villain of the film, a man-made computer, the HAL 9000, which turns murderous and forces the astronauts to disconnect, in essence, murder him. That provides one of the most perverse, alarming scenes in the film, as the gentle-voiced, but lethal HAL sings “Daisy” his (or its) voice breaking as his mind slips away. Languid, patient, Kubrick does not rush his story but rather lets it wash over us. One of the great experiences of the decade.
- BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967)
“They’re young, they’re in love…and they kill people” read the tagline for Bonnie and Clyde, one of the first and greatest films of the counterculture movement. Directed with gritty realism, and for the time, shocking violence, produced by Warren Beatty, who played Clyde Barrow, the film spoke to the American youth, using the Depression as a metaphor for Vietnam. Faye Dunaway became an overnight star as Bonnie Parker, the restless, bored young woman Clyde takes with him on the road and they begin to rob banks. Angry at what the Depression, authority has done to them, they lash back with their gang which includes Buck Barrow (Gene Hackman) the fearless bombastic brother to Clyde, CJ Moss (Michael J. Pollard), the meek little mechanic they take with them, and least, Blanche (Estelle Parsons), The useless, near hysterical wife of Buck, who makes enemies of Bonnie by demanding her cut. Jaunty, often downright fun, with death and murder an ever sobering event that snaps us into reality. The film broke ground in its honest depiction of sexuality, dysfunction, impotence and nymphomania. The slaughter at the end is a foregone conclusion, Bonnie and Clyde were doomed after their first robbery. Ten Academy Award nominations, by far the year’s best film, and one of the defining American films of the decade.
- LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)
British made, but American funded make it American to me folks. David Leans masterpiece about WWI hero T. E. Lawrence, a British officer banished to the deserts of Arabia when the British army did not know what to do with him. A military genius he banded togethe withr the Arabian tribes and went to war against the Turks, taking Aquaba for the British, a sea port thought impossible to take with its guns facing the sea, and the vicious desert at its back. Lawrence simply crossed the desert convincing the tribes to follow him into hell. Peter O’Toole is magnificent as the troubled warrior who his his homosexuality, as well as his sadomasochistic tendencies and bloodlust. It was said he survived being captured and sodomized by the Turks because he liked it. One scene is unforgettable, (in a film filled with unforgettable moments) ,eyes blazing, Lawrence screams “no prisoners” and wades into the fighting, his pristine whit robes making him a target. When the fight is over he sits, spent, his robes now crimson with dripping blood. The desert vistas are stunning, truly gorgeous to witness, like an ocean upon which one can walk. Great supporting work from Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness and especially Anthony Quinn are highlights but it is O’Toole, in his flowing white robes you will never forget. That magnificent score gets in your head as well….one of the greatest films ever made.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.