Armchair Oscars – 1968

Best Picture

Oliver! (Directed by Carol Reed)
The Nominees: Funny Girl, The Lion in Winter, Rachel Rachel, Romeo and Juliet

2001: A Space Odyssey (Directed by Stanley Kubrick)
My Nominees: 
Oliver (Carol Reed), The Lion in Winter (Anthony Harvey), The Producers (Mel Brooks), Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski),Yellow Submarine (George Dunning)


Just about the only reason that I sat down to watch Carol Reed’s musical adaptation of Oliver! was to see the film that the academy had chosen for its Best Picture over Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I more or less expected to slog through a forgettable piece of musical flotsam that would instantaneously be forgotten the minute the final credits rolled (as had been the case with The Great Ziegfeld).

I was pleasantly surprised. Oliver! is bright and lively and quite a bit of fun, taking the difficult subject of a poor orphan in the standard Dickensian doldrums and turning it into a bouncy musical production. Although it doesn’t rival something like Singin’ in the Rain, it wasn’t the dreck I had expected. I can see why the Academy voters were taken by it, and judging by the reactions to 2001 then and now, I sort of understand (but don’t agree) why they wanted to overlook it.

2001: A Space Odyssey divides filmgoers – it is not a movie that exudes crowd-pleasing entertainment. This is a spare, cold examination of man’s journey from his infancy through his ascension to space travel and points beyond. It is told without character development and uses sharp images and stiff dialogue. In most cases this would be fatal, but the cold, hard nature of this story permits a sparseness that asks us to offer our own interpretation.

The movie begins at the dawn of man, when ape-like creatures mill about in a dull, lifeless existence in a barren desert. We’re invited to scene after scene a naturalism, of rocks and dirt and sky and sun with early man as an uncivilized monkey with large teeth whose means of communication doesn’t rise above a primal grunt. This isn’t the zoo animal, but a creature somewhere in the middle stages of his evolution. The apes still have hair, they live in tribes and sleep in caves but there is something in their eyes that suggests that their minds are beginning to ponder.

One day an object drops into their midst, a door-shaped monolith with a perfectly smooth surface. They reach out to touch it but pull their hands away. It seems to have a strange effect on the population, as they discover that if you hit someone with the bone, you can defeat them. The ravages of violence rage as they discover the joy of killing, destroying a pig-like creature and then one another.

The central ape (Moon-Watcher he was called in Arthur C. Clarke’s book) sits upon a pile of bones, quietly flipping them back and forth and then with a ferocious glee discovers that they break when hit. What follows is an incredible ballet of violence that ends when he tosses a bone into the sky and when it falls back we see that this prehistoric weapon has become a nuclear satellite. It is the year 1999 and man’s evolution has pointed him into space. A cave has been discovered on the moon containing a second monolith which emits an ear-splitting noise. Another jump and this time it’s two years later aboard an expedition to Jupiter.

The present story involves that phase that will take us beyond our own imagination. In one incredible visual ballet, we see familiar shapes, wheels and, stick-like ships which dance around in a zero-gravity environment. We have evolved to the point at which we can take our instruments into the heavens though man has as little interest in his surroundings as Moon-Watcher did. Man isn’t any more interesting or excited about his surrounds than a mouse in a cage. Aboard the spacecraft Discovery, the crew is in the hands of the ship’s computer, the HAL 9000 which monitors it’s vital signs and navigates the ship while most of its crew remains in hyper-sleep.  The humans at the consoles are Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, who hardly seem to do any actual work.

Things start to go wrong, however, when HAL begins to question whether or not human faults will endanger the mission and sets out to kill the crew. In their attempts to shut him down, HAL kills Poole but Bowman shuts down HAL. It is only at this point that Bowman discovers a message that was to be viewed only by HAL. In it, the mission commander informs about the black monolith found on the moon and that this mission was to simply follow it to Jupiter and see where it led. Bowman does just that and sets out to farthest reaches of deep space and to the next stage of man’s evolution.

The final sequence is one of the most famous and one of the most unusual sequences in film history. Bowman takes off through the cosmos to points beyond, through a strange metaphysical journey of light and sound. Other than the basic ascent, the images have no rhyme or reason, they exist as an evolutionary passage from Bowman’s present through to his evolution to a place where time and space are merely concepts. Landing eventually in a strangely lit hotel room, Bowman ages rapidly, living a banal existence similar to the one he experiences aboard the Discovery. Finally arriving at an age far beyond antiquity he finds himself confronted by the monolith once more. Reaching for it, he is evolved to a rebirth into a “star baby” floating through the cosmos to begin the next phase of his evolution.

The key to 2001: A Space Odyssey is that Kubrick never tries to please us, he never puts images on the screen for our amazement. Kubrick, with this film as are all his other films, never regards the audience. He puts an image on screen because he wants it there. He knew how smart his audience was. His genius was in making his films spare enough that his material meets us halfway. He never tells us what to think but lays out a framework of images and ideas that are open enough that we add our own interpretation. 2001, can be interpreted in a hundred different ways and almost all of them would be plausible.

For me, the point of the view seems to be from the top down, as if man is being watched by some greater power, by a god-like being or an alien intelligence unseen by us. We are mere lab rats, caught in an experiment in evolution, and occasionally given a doorway (note the shape of the monolith) to our next step upward. From our infancy as mortal beings to our rebirth to a higher being, the experiment carries us along through a maze of light and sound to a point in which all of our creature comforts, and our sense of being, of comfort and even of Terra Firma become meaningless.

The vision of 2001 is far more generous than any science fiction film that I have ever experienced. The film is made up of spaces, silences and mechanical noises. Those are the things I remember. The plot is thin enough that we are invited to meet the narrative halfway, so that our minds can fill in the blanks. It would have been easier, in the end, to place Bowman on a new planet made of rocks and dirt and alien lifeforms but to place him in a strange hotel room somewhere beyond understanding then take him beyond our own concept of human evolution was a stroke of genius. Our final destination on this journey is the star baby, a celestial infant, comfortably tucked into a transparent womb.  The baby turns to regard us in the audience  and asks us to consider our own small existance. Who are we? How did we get here? Where did we come from? Where are we going?

Best Actor

Cliff Robertson (Charly)
The Nominees: Alan Arkin (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter), Alan Bates (The Fixer), Ron Moody (Oliver!), Peter O’Toole (The Lion in Winter)

Zero Mostel (The Producers
My Nominees:
Charleton Heston (Will Penny), Boris Karloff (Targets), Peter O’Toole (The Lion in Winter), Max Von Sydow (Stolen Kisses)


Cliff Robertson was so passionate about adapting Daniel Keyes’ novel “Flowers for Algernon” for the screen that he bought the rights to the book, renamed it Charly and cast himself in the re-titled role. He is a likable actor, good looking with a pleasant face, but in playing the dual role of Charly Gordon, a retarded man who becomes the subject of an experiment to make himself “normal”, he does a better job playing the smarter half. In early scenes, in which he is required to play the retarded half, his performance feels forced.

Robertson had campaigned for the rights to the book and for the lead in the film and then campaigned himself into an Oscar for Best Actor. Shameless though it may have been, it worked and Robertson won over one of Peter O’Toole’s best performances, as Henry II in Anthony Harvey’s adaptation of The Lion in Winter. I’m not a fan of Charly. It is interesting as a character study but the scientific angle clunks up the plot. Robertson doesn’t give a bad performance, but he doesn’t give a remarkable one either.

Of the nominees, as I’ve mentioned, I would have chosen Peter O’Toole and he would get my vote here if it weren’t for one of the most brilliant comic performance in history – Zero Mostel in Mel Brooks’ The Producers. It will forever remain a mystery to me why the academy is so down on comedy and the fact that Mostel didn’t even get a nomination is a shame.

With wide eyes and an even wider belt-line, Mostel embodies one of the most familiar characterizations in comedy – the fat slob who wears his appetites on his sleeve. This is a role that has been perfected by the likes of W.C. Field, Jackie Gleason, Rodney Dangerfield and even in characterizations like Fred Flintstone and Homer Simpson. Mostel’s Max Bialystock, however, is more cunning and more compulsively greedy than any of them.

A once-successful theatrical producer, Max Bialystock now finds himself raising money by romancing little old ladies in his office. Forced to play out sex scenarios like “the milk maid and the stable boy,” Max is the working definition of the word “loser,” but he has a barbarian approach to making a buck.  When his accountant comes to see him and lays out the possibility that a man could make more money putting on a musical flop than a success (because you wouldn’t have to pay anyone back), Bialystock’s eyes dance, his jowly face brightens and we expect dollar signs to dance about his head.

Setting off on their mad pursuit, Bialystock and Bloom plow through script after script searching for the absolute worst script ever conceived.  They suddenly hit pay dirt with a musical abomination called “Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden.” Max is so positive that he has found the perfect material that he gives the pages a loving kiss, and then advises Bloom to do the same. To further his assertion that this is the right (wrong?) script, when Bloom informs him that “This won’t run a week,” Max assures him “Are you kidding? This play’s got to close on page four!”

I think if Mostel had played the part straight, only playing to the situation, then his performance wouldn’t have worked so well. What he gives the film are little moments like the drooling leer he gives his pneumatic secretary (Lee Meredith) or his habit of opening his safe and patting his money like a beloved pet – “Hello boys,” he says to the stack of bills. He has smaller moments that work beautifully – like a curious moment when he throws coffee on a dirty window and then shouts at owner of a Rolls Royce across the street “That’s it baby! When you’ve got it FLAUNT IT! FLAUNT IT!” His dialogue is a perfect act of comic timing as when he tells Bloom, “You’re an accountant! You’re in a noble profession! The word “count” is part of your title!” or when he spells out his failure by stating, “This pin used to hold a pearl the size of your eye. Look at me now, LOOK AT ME NOW! I’m wearing a cardboard belt!”

If you followed Mostel’s career before this film, you find that it is something of a surprise. He was a dramatic actor who was a victim of the Hollywood blacklist and appeared in a string of forgettable films before rediscovering himself as a comedian. His performance as Pseudolus in the unfortunate film adaptation of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum wasn’t a complete success but his performance showed bits of the comedic genius that he was able to perfect here. What Mostel brought to Max Bialystock was a comic ferocity of a man who is so single-minded in his greedy pursuits that he approaches them with the kind of fervor with which a lion approaches a steak. For example, look at the way his eyes dance when Leo tells him about the scheme. There is no thought as to whether it will work, there is only the thought of “When do we start?”

Best Actress

Katharine Hepburn (The Lion in Winter) and Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl)
The Nominees: Patricia Neal (The Subject Was Roses), Vanessa Redgrave (Isadora), Joanne Woodward (Rachel, Rachel)

Mia Farrow (Rosemary’s Baby)
y Nominees: Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl), Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet), Jo Van Fleet (I Love You, Alice B. Toklas)


The only tie for Best Actress in a Leading Role was shared with the old pro and the new kid on the block. Sixty-One year-old Katharine Hepburn had broken two records by receiving an eleventh nomination and a third win, this time for playing Eleanor of Aquitaine in Anthony Harvey’s adaptation of James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter while 26-year-old Barbra Streisand capped her much-anticipated film debut as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl.

I’m not a fan of Hepburn’s performance. I prefer Streisand who was chipper, lively and fun in the role, but other than Streisand, I wouldn’t want to spend a weekend watching any of the nominees for Best Actress of 1968 – Joanne Woodward, Patricia Neal nor Vanessa Redgrave – because performance-wise this was not a banner year for any of them. I have the greatest respect for all of these wonderful actresses but, truthfully, none of these nominated performances were showcases of their talent.

I have a feeling that if the academy had opened the category to six nominees, then my choice would have been nominated. By 1968, Mia Farrow was best known as Mrs. Frank Sinatra and by the time of the academy awards, she was better known as the former Mrs. Frank Sinatra.  That wouldn’t deter from the fact that she gave her single best performance in Roman Polanski’s moody adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel Rosemary’s Baby.

Farrow plays Rosemary Woodhouse a semi-newlywed looking for an apartment with her actor husband Guy (John Cassavetes) find the perfect place in Manhattan’s Bram Building, a large odd, elder-tenement that is strange even before we realize why. There is a closet that seems blocked off for no reason, all of the other tenants seem to be in their 70s and on their first night, there is odd chanting coming from the apartment next door. The oddities are there but they don’t seem to shake Rosemary even as she begins having bizarre dreams about ritualistic sex.

Her neighbors are not exactly threatening – they are older grandparent-types who always come by with caring smiles, warm tea and desserts. She and Guy have their closest relationship with Roman and Millie Casavets (Sydney Berman and Ruth Gordon), a childless old couple who treat Rosemary like the daughter they never had. It all seems normal. Rosemary and Guy have the usual husband and wife conflicts, but they remain a loving couple and soon after they settle into the tenement, they decide to have a baby.

This is where things turn bizarre. On the night of the conception Rosemary has a dessert given to her by Mrs. Casavets, becomes dizzy and passes out. She enters into a bizarre dream in which she is raped by a demon while her neighbors stand around nude watching the act (for some reason, one of the onlookers resembles Jackie Kennedy from that day in November). When she awakens, she finds scratches on her body and Guy apologizes that he was such an animal in bed. Things surface that seem to conform to her dream, Mrs. Casavets keeps bringing tea and desserts and new people keep showing up. There is an odd sense that the people around her seem off-kilter, somehow askew; they don’t look as we expect from our fellow human beings; there is a look in their eyes that seems strange. She visits an elder doctor who seems to take her; suspicions and turns them on her, he is more interested in prescribing medicine than caring for his patient.

All of this is played, more or less, through Rosemary’s eyes. We never leave her side and, for most of the film, we don’t understand what goes on when she’s not around. The best note that Farrow brings to the performance is a naive sensibility. There’s a wide-eyed kid still lurking in her, the sensibilities of her teenage years haven’t completely left her, even though she is now in her early twenties. If she had allowed Rosemary to be stronger, more confident, then the performance wouldn’t work. We have to believe that she is naive enough to think that she is caught under someone’s spell and that she is susceptible to suggestion; if she contained a strong mind that could piece together the puzzle, than we would believe that she could work her way out of this situation.

The final image of the film in one of the most striking as she looks into her baby’s bassinet. She realizes that every suspicion was correct, that everyone around her had a hand in the deception and the conception, we realize that Rosemary has now fallen under the spell and as the image quietly fades out and into the Paramount logo, we realize that this story has no happy ending.

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