Armchair Oscars – 1969
Midnight Cowboy (Directed by John Schlesinger)
The Nominees: Anne of a Thousand Days, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Hello Dolly!, Z
Easy Rider (Directed by Dennis Hopper)
My Nominees: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Paul Mazursky), Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler), Oh! What a Lovely War (Charles Chilton), Take the Money and Run (Woody Allen), True Grit (Henry Hathaway), The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckenpah)
Just as the social climate in America was changing in 1969, so too was the landscape of the American film industry. The studio system was breaking down as the old studio heads were retiring and their studios were being bought by large beverage and fast food corporations with an eye on profit, but no sense of artistic vision. The breakdown of the studio system lead to a tidal wave of independent filmmakers and a decade of personal film making. The old reliable genres were in trouble, conventional westerns were growing stale, the musical was barely breathing and even a reliable franchise like James Bond hit a slump with the first non-Connery entry, the forgettable George Lazenby outing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
So, with the old reliable genres falling out of favor, the new blood was trying new things, creating new genres or retooling old ones. Harder content was making its way into American films as nudity, harsh language and controversial subject matter lead to the formation of ratings system put forth by the MPAA. Still, edgy filmmakers could now experiment because the ratings system was still a work in progress and the old production code had been eliminated.
The change was obvious in the decade’s last crop of Best Picture nominees when choices both right wing and left wing fought it out. The declared winner was the first and only Best Picture winner ever to receive an X-rating, John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, a stark and dreary portrait of the bitter-cold adventures of a naive street hustler (Jon Voight) and his ill-fated manager (Dustin Hoffman). The film was something new, a sad buddy picture with few happy moments and a portrait of a society that blows bitter cold.
Midnight Cowboy is a film that contains two wonderful performances dropped in the middle of a film that is dated and unfocused. There are brilliant moments such as the opening scene when Jon Voight’s Joe Buck arrives in New York City and passes a man in a suit lying face down on the sidewalk that no one seems to notice. Moments like that are off-set by a lot of dated, unconvincing set pieces that don’t work, such as a confrontation between Voight and an elderly gay man (Barnard Hughes) that ends with Voight shoving a phone into the old man’s mouth. Plus, the movie hasn’t aged well, especially a trip to a chic party that seems to pull the gritty reality right out of the film.
Fitting comfortably into a time capsule, however, is my choice for Best Picture of 1969, Dennis Hopper’s immortal Easy Rider, a story of the country’s counter-culture as seen through the eyes of a group of hippies riding choppers to a drug deal. Hopper looked at America’s youth through the prism of the films coming out of Hollywood and was dismayed by what he saw. Youth on the silver screen in the late 60s was portrayed by Frankie and Annette and their beach parties and Kurt Russell’s misadventures at Medvale college. Riots were happening in the real world over the government’s mishandling of a war that was killing millions and accomplishing nothing and a disillusioned counter-culture was looking for new ways to express themselves.
Easy Rider is told through Billy and Wyatt, hippies from California whose singular mission is to take the money from a large cocaine deal and ride their motorcycles to Mardi Gras and then to retirement in Florida. As with most personal journeys the destination is only a McGuffin, the point is the journey they take. Most of the people they meet look at them with cold suspicious eyes (Their names are Western references to Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid.)
I’ve always seen Easy Rider as the flip-side of a Preston Sturgis film. If the hero of Sullivan’s Travels headed out to discover the common man in America, Billy and Wyatt couldn’t care less. They drive down the American highway but they never marvel at the sights. They’ve become so disillusioned by the mask that covers the American Dream (at least that’s the way I interpret it) that their vision is faced front.
The interesting perspective on the film is not just how they see America but how America sees them. Passing through the south they are met with looks of disdain. They are arrested and jailed when they end up in the middle of a small town parade. It is in this jail cell that they meet George (Jack Nicholson), a drunken Harvard-educated lawyer who looks as if he’s spent a few nights in the gutter. His dialogue in the film is what we remember most, especially when he informs his new friends, “They got this here scissor-happy beautify-America thing here. Trying to make everybody look like Yul Brynner. They used rusty razor blades on the last two long-hairs they brought in. I wasn’t here to protect’em. I’ve done a lot of work for the ACLU.” He tells them, “You boys don’t look like you’re from this part of the country,” and I think it is reasonable to think that they would have heard that in any part of the country.
Jack Nicholson’s cheshire gin, ridiculous laugh and cockeyed wit were new in 1969. He had been in movies for 10 years but it was this film that made him a star. Historians site this as a primer for his performance in Five Easy Pieces and later Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining. His dialogue, or rather his delivery of it, was what established him as an actor to look out for. He has the best dialogue in this film, note how many of his lines are quoted on the films “Quotes” section of the IMDb.
It doesn’t take long before the trio is attacked and George is the one who ends up dead. I always found it interesting that the one person who was most like the attackers is killed while the outlaws are left alive. They wanted George dead for being a traitor, for selling out to the enemy (it was suggested early in the film’s production that the character be black but a white man who fell from grace seems more fitting).
There are images in the film that are symbolic, not just the pair riding down the highway but also scenes like a rotating shot in a hippie camp where we see dozens of young faces, different faces, sad faces, no one smiling – they symbolize the disallusion of America’s youth. There is a tense moment when the trio stop in a diner in Mississippi where everyone is so obviously the right-wing and stare them down. There is a striking moment during an acid trip in a cemetery when a sobbing Wyatt embraces a statue that looks very much like The Statue of Liberty and cries “Mama, why did you cop out of me”, emblematic of the way young people viewed their country in the midst of Vietnam. There is the moment when Billy throws his watch into a river before hitting the highway. There is the moment right at the beginning when he threads a long tube full of drug money into his bike’s gas tank on which is painted the American flag. Fonda’s explanation is that this is a symbol of what the government was doing in Vietnam: “fucking the American flag with money.” Then, of course, there is the moment in the end when the flaming motorcycle is seen burning between the God-made river and the man-made highway.
As I said, this movie fits comfortably into a time capsule as all great portraits of our history do. The movies are a time capsule of specific periods of our history, of attitudes, of ideas, of motivations and of commentary. They put a stamp on the times in which they were made and can inform those (like me) who were born after that period. I don’t know anything about World War II from personal experience, nor from Vietnam, nor from the hippie period, but the attitudes captured at those specific moments allow me to feel a small bit of what it was like to have been there.
John Wayne (True Grit)
The Nominees: Richard Burton (Anne of a Thousand Days), Peter O’Toole (Goodbye, Mr. Chips), Dustin Hoffman (Midnight Cowboy), Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy)
Dustin Hoffman (Midnight Cowboy)
My Nominees: Peter O’Toole (Goodbye, Mr. Chips)
It irritates me that when the academy got around to rewarding the great screen tough guys like James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, they were rewarded for light, pussycat roles. While I cannot agree that John Wayne’s performance as Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn in Henry Hathaway’s True Grit was his best, I admit that I am glad that his Oscar came for a western.
By the late sixties, John Wayne had become a legend in his own time. He was still the tough, rugged image of America’s western landscape at a time when the social and political landscape of America was turning upside-down. Inevitably, the change in the social landscape brought about a change in the shape of American movies. In the late sixties, the old guard that started the motion picture studios in the early part of the century were either dying off or retiring and their companies were being given over to a younger generation. The movies were changing, the newly formed rating system allowed filmmakers to deal with darker subject matter. Even the western was changing, in the form of films like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch which John Wayne found repellent, claiming that it was helping to destroy the myth of the old west.
In the era of The Wild Bunch, it was a relief that a movie as exciting and old-fashioned as True Grit could still be made. As for The Duke’s performance, I always feel as though I am watching a comical variation of John Wayne’s image – the role seems to be a compendium of the roles that made him famous. I think winning the Oscar was affirmation, less for his acting than in recognition of his nearly half-century on the screen (he made 250 films – 150 were lead roles). The academy had nominated him twice, first for Best Actor in Sands of Iwo Jima and as the producer of The Alamo, but I think they regarded him as a presence more than an actor. I wish the academy had at least considered him for his more serious work in The Searchers, The Quiet Man, The Long Voyage Home or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, but it is hard to complain – at least Wayne received a competitive Oscar in his lifetime unlike so many of his contemporaries who had been passed over right up until their dying day.
I thought John Wayne gave a so-so performance in a movie that I dearly loved. My choice for Best Actor was just the opposite, Dustin Hoffman gave a magnificent performance in a movie I find dated and disorganized. In Midnight Cowboy, Hoffman plays Enrico Salvatore “Ratso” Rizzo, whom we do not meet until nearly an hour into the film. Before we get to him we’ve been following the man who will become his confidant, Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a hick who has traveled from Texas to New York believing that his formidable manhood will allow him to make a living pleasuring rich women. As it begins, it doesn’t go well, he is a babe in the jungle and doesn’t learn from his mistake after he is ripped off.
He meets Ratso, who claims that he can get him good gigs with high-class rich women. The man is a complete sleaze, but Joe Buck learns to trust him even after Ratso steals $20 from an arrangement that goes bad. He confides in Joe Buck that he wants to go to Florida and work the circuit down there. For Ratso, Florida is a place that is less squalid and also a place where no one knows him. It would be a chance to start over. The problem is that luck is not with them and neither is Ratso’s health, which gets worse and worse. But as he declines, he and Joe Buck grow closer until Joe Buck turns down a lucrative offer in order to help his friend realize his dream.
Ratso isn’t like anyone we’ve seen in the movies (or wanted to). He’s a sleazy little rat with a bum’s coat, a pale face, nasty stubble, a whiney voice, a limp and a cigarette that hangs from his lip. It is difficult to like him but even more difficult not to feel something for him especially when he falls ill. What we notice first from Ratso is his defensive shield – he puts up the false front of a tough guy even though we can see that he is insecure down to his bones. Crossing the street with Joe Buck he is nearly hit by a cab and screams, “I’m walking here!” (The line was improvised by Hoffman when a real cab nearly ran over him.)
He is knowledgeable about the New York streets (or at least seems to be), convincing the naive Joe Buck that he knows what it takes to find rich ladies who want a good time. He gives his client a place to sleep, back in his disgusting apartment in a condemned building where Ratso’s facade begins to crack. Sitting in the dark with a cup of soup in his hand and tears in his eyes, he cries as he fears the ailment that will soon consume him. “You know what they do to you when they know you can’t w-walk,” he tells Joe Buck, “I’m scared.”
The performance comes from Hoffman’s refusal to ask for our sympathies. He plays the character as a complete sleaze, a man who carries himself like a rodent and who plies his trade in a bottom-feeding industry. He stands within his environment as a result of urban decay and yet when Joe Buck feels sympathy for him we can’t help but follow suit. There is something of a halted childhood in Ratso, as if he grew up but forgot to leave his defensive emotional blanket behind.
I only have one quibble: I wish the performance were in a better movie. The scenes between Hoffman and Voight are beautifully done, giving us the portrait of two lost souls who have found solace in one another, but those scenes are interrupted by silly scenes like a trip to an upscale party and a scene where Joe Buck shoves a telephone into the mouth of an elderly gay man. Those scenes break up the narrative and fall on the personal story like a ton of bricks. It almost feels like director John Schlesinger and screenwriter Walto Salt didn’t have enough faith in their material to let the relationship lead the story. They keep letting film’s forward momentum get gummed up by intrusive moments like a series of badly photographed flashbacks to Joe Buck’s past.
Despite anyone’s objections, the film would go on to win Best Picture – the only X-rated film ever to do so – and would win further Oscars for Best Director and Adapted Screenplay. I think Hoffman would have won were it not for John Wayne. Here, he silenced critics who had written him off as a one-note actor after his performance as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Ratso is a completely new character that showed Hoffman’s range and showed the promise of the multiple notes that he could play. In the decade that would follow, he would provide us with the multitudes of characters he could play like Jack Crabb in Little Big Man, Louis Dega in Papillion, Lenny Bruce in Lenny, Max Dembo in Straight Time, Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie, Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman, Raymond Babbit in Rain Man among many others. Yet, it was here that he would get his respect, in the role of this rat-like little man that you can’t like but can’t help feeling sad for.
Maggie Smith (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie)
The Nominees: Geneviève Bujold (Anne of a Thousand Days), Jane Fonda (They Shoot Horses. Don’t They), Liza Minelli (The Sterile Cuckoo), Jean Simmons (The Happy Ending)
Jane Fonda (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?)
My Nominees: Shirley Knight (The Rain People)
You’ve gotta love Maggie Smith, there’s just no one else quite like her. She has the grand qualities of a favorite aunt, she has the warmest of smiles, yet is the kind of lady you wouldn’t want to disappoint. I’ve seen her in films all my life and although she always brings that same quality to her film work, I never grow tired of it.
She won the Best Actress Oscar only once, for her performance in the title role of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie based on the play by Jay Alan Presson (which itself was based on a book by Muriel Spark). It tells the story of a passion-filled schoolteacher working in a girl’s school in Edinburgh in the 1930s who devalues school’s listless curriculum in favor of teaching the girls about the important subjects that help them better understand their world – subjects like love and politics. Yet, she is no angel, she has affairs with two of her fellow teachers and the story really sparks when one of those affairs becomes known.
The film is not without interest but this was very much a movie of its time. The message, in the late sixties, in the wake of social rebellion and women’s liberation, was far more palatable than it is today. Maggie Smith never gives a dull performance but here, her performance feels a bit mannered and unconvincing. Her Oscar nomination had been a surprise, the film had opened and then closed early in the year and, despite some good reviews, the film had fallen off the map, although she did win a BATFA award and was nominated for a Golden Globe.
Out of a very meager year for actresses in leading roles, my favorite was a turning point in the career of Jane Fonda. Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, is a very strange experience, a dark-hearted adaptation of Horace McCoy’s novel about several people involved in a nightmarish dance marathon. I am at an impass here because I am choosing to reward Fonda’s performance for a movie I didn’t like very much. What is special is that Fonda here is that she shows a side of her talent that I never knew existed. She had been known personally as Henry’s daughter and professionally as the star of featherweight pictures like Barefoot in the Park, Cat Ballou and the awful Barbarella. Yet, it was her role in Pollack’s film that would show what she could really do as an actress.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (a comical title but a deadly serious picture) takes place in 1932 in a shabby ballroom in Santa Monica, California. Fonda plays Gloria Beatty, an angry, embittered woman trying to enter a dance marathon with her partner who is disqualified because of a noisy cough. At the last minute, she picks Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin), a tall kid who is standing alone out of line. They enter a dance marathon in which a hundred couples have to keep dancing until they drop to their knees and are disqualified. Last couple standing gets 1,500 silver dollars. These contests were common in the 1930s and this one apparently goes on for weeks, with periodic rest breaks. The contest is merciless; it goes on and on and on while the sadistic MC Rocky (Supporting Actor winner Gig Young) scans the contestants to spot their weaknesses and exploit them in an effort to keep up the audience enthusiasm. He keeps raising the stakes, adding frequent heel-toe derbies in which the contestants have to heel-toe around a track for 10 agonizing minutes, with the last three couples to cross the finish line eliminated. As the dance goes on, it begins having horrifying effects on the dancers, who begin to crack under the pressure.
The contestants circling around Robert and Gloria are an assorted cast of characters, all of whom are dancing as fast as they can for various reasons. There’s the sailor and his wife, who are former dance marathon winners. There’s the farm couple (Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedilia) who need the money because she is pregnant. There are a couple of wannabe actors (Suzanna York and Robert Fields) who are in the contest hoping to be spotted by talent scouts. Each one has a reason for being there and each one is desperate to win for one reason or another. They are willing to kill themselves for the money and the MC, in an effort to keep the crowd entertained, is all too happy to oblige.
This is the angriest character that Fonda has ever played. Gloria exhibits not one moment of happiness and never smiles. She has eyes that betray a life spent in misery and pain. What is most troubling is that she is still young, still beautiful and her disillusionment in life has come to her while her age is still fresh enough to offer possibilities. Yet, there’s something else going on, something hidden. We learn very little about Gloria’s past and that leaves us to fill in the blanks. We do know that she wanted to become an actress but failed, and we sense that her pathway to that dream perhaps led her to the casting couch. There’s a perfect moment in which Rocky gives her a suggestive look and she defiantly tells him “no.”
We also sense that she has entered this contest as a means of last resort. When her dance partner is disqualified during the sign-up process, there is a panic in her eyes and she chooses Robert, the only man who doesn’t seem partnered up. We expect that something will crack, that her personality is a facade that will begin to fade once they fall in love, but no romance blooms – Robert is just a means to an end. She is a woman hanging onto life by her fingernails and, late in the film, when she discovers that most of the prize money will be used to pay for contest expenses, it becomes clear that all the hours and days and weeks of continuous dancing are all for nothing, she has lost all reason to live. In this torturous rat race that “just goes on and on and on and on,” she opts out, the hard way.
This is a very effective performance by Jane Fonda. It explored a darkness that she never explored before or after. It was the beginning of a brilliant dramatic career that would make her one of the best actresses of her generation – she would play strong women, professional women, passionate women, but she would never show this dark heart again.