Fixing Oscar For One Film: Part Four 1961-1968
We all have that one movie we really wish had taken home the Best Picture Oscar that one time – even if we say we don’t care about the Oscars at all. At least most of us do if we’re reading an article on the subject on a pop culture blog on the internet. Well, LeBlog is teaming up with its readers to select one Best Picture loser from the previous eighty-nine years of the awards as our favorite also-ran. This is the picture we will be affording a unique honor here with the title of “Best-Loved Loser.” Help us weed out the good from the great as we consider five more movies that came up just short on movies’ biggest night.
The Hustler (1961)
Robert Rossen’s story of competitive obsession and the pull between the honesty and dishonesty around you has generally gained in estimation among fans of film since its 1961 release. The Hustler was based on Walter Tevis’ semi-autobiographical novel of the same name and focused on pool player “Fast” Eddie Felson’s striving to prove himself a great pool player while breaking into the big money world of high-stakes gambling. Eddies’s “white whale” is the legendary player “Minnesota Fats,” played by the famous comic actor Jackie Gleason who was himself an accomplished pool player, allowing director Rossen to shoot him fully in frame as he made his shots. A real-life player named Rudolf Wanderone, who had, among other names, been known at times as “New York Fats” made the claim that the character had been based on him and took advantage of the notoriety this gave him over the years despite Tevis flatly denying he knew of him when he wrote his book. My primary memory of the supposed real-life “Minnesota Fats” is seeing him lose a televised game of pool sometime in the mid 1970s. Needless to say, I’ve found The Hustler a bit more impressive over the years.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor (2), Adapted Screenplay
Oscar Wins: Best Art Direction, Cinematography
To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
I’m guessing a good ninety percent of Americans who went to public school read Harper Lee’s original 1960 novel To Kill A Mockingbird while they were there. They certainly should have. Back in the early sixties it still appeared to be a reasonable goal to write the great American novel, and plenty of the attempts that peppered the New York Times’ best-seller list then got optioned for big budget big screen adaptations. When Gregory Peck was contacted about playing the story’s heroic small town attorney Atticus Finch, he called back immediately to accept the role, and it has stood to this day as the most memorable of his career, the one referenced by every passing stranger and the one associated with him at his funeral. This is the noble American individualist of Capra’s films brought to life for the following generation, standing up to the racist mob with accuracy and dignity and empathy. It’s a book and a film that should be taught and screened as often as possible in hopes that we don’t forget its lessons.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress, Original Score, Cinematography
Oscar Wins: Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
The oppressive concerns of the cold war era creep and crawl and then burst out in rueful hilarity in one of director Stanley Kubrick’s many excellent films, and his only true comedy. Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb not only requires a little patience to read its entire title, but also some patience from its audience before it truly shows its hand. Use of footage of military planes fueling up in-air paired with an instrumental version of the romantic ballad “Try A Little Tenderness” during the opening credits does the heavy lifting of establishing that yes, this is a comedy long before the events and dialogue on screen begin to spiral into the lunacy of global thermonuclear conflict. Kubrick also makes use of film reel style portions to establish a real world context for his progressively cartoonish characters and moments. The film was initially intended to end with a huge pie fight prior to the detonation of the ‘doomsday machine,’ but in retrospect it appears that Kubrick made the right call in letting annihilation directly follow the one truly joyful moment at half as his title character suddenly regains the ability to walk. “We’ll Meet Again” actually serves as an optimistic clearing of the board as evolution will be now given another chance.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Adapted Screenplay
Oscar Wins: None
Mary Poppins (1964)
1964 was a pretty strong year, wasn’t it? I could have easily asked you to consider the Richard Burton/Peter O’Toole historical drama Becket also. Just one of three nominated films that should have been chosen over the hermetically sealed version of My Fair Lady that made it onto the big screen. One criticism that has been lodged against Mary Poppins is its largely episodic nature, with Mary and Burt and the children larking from one event to the next until the central story about Mister Banks finally kicks in. While I’d certainly count this as a valid thing to notice about the film, whether it counts as a deficit in the overall creation of the movie will probably be up to personal taste. Although I do think proceedings drag on a bit while Mary and Burt dance on London’s rooftops, I don’t typically mind an episodic structure to films, especially if part of the idea is to build a fantastical world or feature eccentric characters. I like to be able to tour such places and meet such people without always having to be bothered with plot. While Mary Poppins certainly doesn’t need an honorary designation to stay in the minds and hearts of millions, I can certainly sympathize with those who’d like to see it lavished with more praise anyway.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Adaptation Score, Sound, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design
Oscar Wins: Best Actress, Best Score, Best Original Song, Film Editing, Visual Effects
The Lion in Winter (1968)
As was more often the habit in those days, James Goldman’s hit Broadway play was rather quickly adapted for the big screen and released just two years after it began its run in March of 1966. While the events and dialogue of the script are patently fictional (there was no Christmas in Henry’s court in 1183) the surrounding historical events, relationships, and intrigues are either generally accurate, or reasonable conclusions based on some of the available historical evidence. Either way, the script crackles and seethes and lopes with an energy and economy that belie its running time of more than two hours. All of those nights treading the boards makes for pretty effective measuring of what works and what doesn’t in pacing a story for a full theater of guests wanting to be entertained, and with The Lion In Winter we get twists and turns and some of the sharpest lines you’re likely to hear anywhere. For a long time, the only video copies that were available use the hated pan-scan presentation and badly marred the film’s beautiful photography, but in 2016 the film was lovingly restored and it is this version of the trailer that I’m including below.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Costume Design
Oscar Wins: Best Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Original Score
We have a real variety to choose from here, with neo-realism, a bright musical comedy, a pitch black comedy, a twisty historical drama, and one of the most loved American stories of the twentieth century. Chime in here with a vote and below in the comments section about which of these five great films should be moved on to the championship round next week.