Since the 1960s are ostensibly remembered as a nonstop parade of drug-fueled, artistic counterculture, it is easy to forget the mainstream world it set out to counter. As Hollywood and the American film industry retreated into a nostalgic coma devoid of social introspection or cultural nuance, the Academy settled into a facile routine of rewarding obvious entertainments. Massive roadshow releases emerged as easy favorites, with four mega-musicals (the most in one decade) taking home the grand prize. This move towards detached fantasy would ultimately mark the ‘60s as one of the most backwards-looking decade in Oscar history, giving seven top prizes to movies that dwell on times gone by despite that the social landscape was becoming an increasingly significant player in daily life with its visible strides towards equality.
Prior to the much-needed jolt of youthful energy that 1967 and its Summer of Love would bring, the Academy had not recognized contemporary stories since 1955 – though, with JFK’s assassination and the ongoing situation in Vietnam, one would be hard-pressed to claim a lack of inspiration as the reason behind this temporal schism. Filmmakers across the pond certainly did not find themselves in the same situation, and European cinema dominated the auteurist landscape for much of the decade as heavyweights like Bergman, Antonioni and Visconti rose to international prominence.
The worldlier, farther-reaching Cannes Film Festival proved that a bold and liberated explorations of modern life and its effects on humanity, no matter how minute, could generate meanings more radical and enduring than overwrought, bloated epics. With Fellini pondering the ups and downs of La Dolce Vita, Antonioni reflecting upon glamorous ennui in Blowup and Demy tracing the all-too-realistic downfall of a relationship in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the Palme d’Or continuously accentuated the brokenness of the American film industry’s self-rewarding nature.
Sure, feel-good movies like The Apartment (1960), Tom Jones (1963), and My Fair Lady (1964) demonstrate cinema’s inherent power to entertain and uplift, but should they be considered exemplary of the form? Certainly none of them represent any sort of creative pinnacle of their respective genres – frankly, My Fair Lady isn’t even 1964’s best musical about young Brits learning and rebelling against strict Edwardian codes (see: Mary Poppins). There is nothing particularly brilliant or innovative about these Best Picture winners or, really, the nominee pools from which they were selected; American cinema was facing grave stagnation.
Suddenly, 1967 came and brought about the American cinematic revolution that did away with the “gospel that Hollywood is dead,” as Roger Ebert wrote:
“This was the year when Hollywood was rediscovered, after a decade in which the most interesting films came from Europe. … For years it has been gospel that Hollywood is dead, and yet it produced many of the most interesting movies of 1967. … This was also a year in which films pushed further than ever before into an honest examination of the way we really live.”
In short, America had caught up to its foreign contemporaries. Subtler, more nuanced examinations of modernity sprang forth in the form of The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, which, like Venice’s grand winner Belle de Jour and Cannes’ Blowup, gave voice to an increasingly alienated youth with little hope in the dystopian future they foresaw. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night (1967), which would go on to claim that year’s statuette, dealt with mounting racial inequalities both at home and at the police station. Still, Heat’s win points to the Oscars’ aversion to advancement and its future trend of absolving its sins by rewarding white-friendly, leisurely progressive films instead of actual achievements in cinema; the startling shockwaves still felt by The Graduate and Bonnie’s transgressiveness far outlast the pats in the back encouraged by that year’s winner.
This leap in artistic development must have made 1968’s one-off return to tone-deafness seem a shocking step back, with Kubrick’s magnum opus 2001: A Space Odyssey shunned from the main race and the family-friendly musical Oliver! (1968) winning Best Picture. Based on the Charles Dickens-inspired musical, this remarkably out-of-step film is even further removed from the time’s reality than previous winners The Sound of Music (1965) or A Man For All Seasons (1966), which at least could be said to have resonating calls to moral steadfastness in the face of hardship.
Fortunately, this push back into the G-rated past did not bleed into the Academy’s future, as deafeningly established by Midnight Cowboy (1969), the only X-rated film to win Best Picture. A squalid tale of call girls and con men in a seamy Manhattan, the film established a precedent of modern, hypermasculine crime dramas that the ‘70s would readily follow. The American New Wave, with its often discomforting and always compelling ideals, was in full swing; directors – instead of studios – began taking charge of their productions, producing auteur works that treated their visions with a pressing immediacy that demanded recognition. With American cinema finally mirroring its times and the Academy eagerly rewarding its modernization, the Oscars would go on to represent a new standard in urgent, emerging filmmaking.