Armchair Oscars – 1964

Best Picture

My Fair Lady (Directed by George Cukor)
The Nominees: Becket, Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Mary Poppins, Zorba the Greek

Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Directed by Stanley Kubrick)
My Nominees: 
A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester), A Shot in the Dark (Blake Edwards), Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton)


In Nineteen Sixty-Four the British struck cinematic gold and if you don’t believe me just look at both the academy’s choices and my choices for Best Picture nominees.  The Best Picture winner was the most popular movie of the year, George Cukor’s My Fair Lady, based on the hit musical which was adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion”, which tells the story of Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) who makes a bet that he can take uncouth flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) and turn her into a pillar of social graces.

The songs are memorable and the two characters have a certain charm but as a musical it is only mediocre.  Harrison’s Higgins is so sharp that I have a difficult time believe that he would grow “accustomed to her face” and Hepburn is perfect as the refined socialite but I had a difficult time believing her as the unkempt urchin.  As a musical it always feels like homework, as if I am suppose to like it.  Revisiting the film again recently, I couldn’t help thinking that a similar story was told much better with Eddie Murphy in Trading Places.

For this year, I wish the academy had given up it’s prejudice against comedies and gone with my choice, Stanley Kubrik’s immortal nuclear mishap comedy Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  Praised and reviled at the time as one of the most controversial movies ever made, it has since gone on to become a comedy classic.  Only Kubrick could have hatched the idea of a movie about an accidental nuclear holocaust so soon after The Cuban Missile Crisis and while our arms race with the Soviets was still hot.

Loosely based upon a very serious novel “Two Hours to Doom” by Peter George, the movie is a satire of the frightening notion that a nuclear strike could be initiated by one insane man and that a comedy of errors could be set in place to keep it from being called back.  It kicks off when the paranoid General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders a nuclear payload dropped over the Soviet Union from a B-52 already in the air.  Locked in his office at Burpleton Air Force Base, he has convinced himself that the Communists have put fluoride in our drinking water which has rendered him impotent and for this, they must be destroyed.  Stuck between Ripper and the callback is Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) a stiff upper-lipped British officer who could end this whole mess except for two things: 1.) Ripper won’t give him the callback codes and 2.) He locked the door.

Meanwhile in The War Room, President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again) is informed about the mishap by General Buck Turgeson (George C. Scott) who tries and fails to effect a note of calm, then humor then a static tone that is suppose to keep the president from losing his cool.  He confidently tells him (while repeatedly shoving gum into his mouth) “I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops.  Uh, depending on the breaks”.  “I will not go down in history as the greatest mass-murderer since Adolph Hitler”, the president tells him. “Perhaps it might be better, Mr. President” Turgeson reminds him, “if you were more concerned with the American people, than with your image in the history books.”

The president makes an emergency phone call to the Russian Premier and calmly tries to break the news.  The phone call is comic gold as the President slides into the ultimate bad news by informing him that “one of our Generals . . . well . . . he went a little funny in the head.  Just a little, you know . . . funny” The perfect button on the moment comes just after he informs him that the nuclear payload has been ordered; there is a brief pause before the president says “Now . . . calm down, Dimitri”.

The key to the movie is that Kubrick doesn’t pad the story.  He sets loose a situation that doesn’t require it.  The movie is made up of a handful of locations, the central situation and then rest are just words and personalities.  The way the characters attempt to deal with the situation is probably not that far from how it would be handled in real life, it is so absurd that it has happened but even more absurd that no one has a plan for dealing with it.  I love the comic invention late in the film as the men in the war room simply give up trying to defuse the situation and start discussing the ratio of surviving men to surviving women after the nuclear fallout.  It is suggested that caves and mine shafts could be used to house the surviving men and woman to rebuild civilization.  That leads to General Turgeson and Russian Ambassador Sadesky (Peter Bull) rolling around on the floor in an argument over suspicions that the Russians will attempt to compromise the American’s cave space.  Turgeson accuses the Russians of trying to create a “mineshaft gap”

Stanley Kubrick only made 11 films in his career, he made a film in every genre: Film noir (The Killing), a legal thriller (Paths of Glory), a historical epic (Spartacus), an awkward romance (Lolita), science fiction (2001: A Space Odyssey), horror (The Shining), a war film (Full Metal Jacket) and an erotic thriller (Eyes Wide Shut).  He was able to take those standard genres and, using his unique style, give them a different spin.  His films are cold and efficient, they contain multitudes, yet they never contain shots just to please the eye.  Dr. Strangelove was his stab at comedy and he doesn’t just set up jokes and watch them fall, he establishes a doomsday scenario and applies a cast of characters so bumbling and absurd that none of them seem capable of tying their own shoes.

Off the top, we meet General Jack D. Ripper, a cigar chomping ball of paranoia who wants the Commies dead for infiltrating our drinking water with flouride thus rendering him impotent (Freud could have written volumes).

There’s the president, Merkin Muffley, a meager Gerald Ford type who places a call the Russian Premiere Kissoff to explain that one of our Generals went “a little funny in the head” and then after breaking the terrible news has to tell him “Now, calm down Demitre”.

There’s Major T.J. Kong (Slim Pickens), who commands the doombringing B-52 and when he gets his unusual orders, barks into the radio to the men on the plane “how many times have I told you guys that I don’t want no horsing around on the airplane?” Ultimately, he has one of the most spectacular exits of any character in movie history.

There’s the Russian Ambassador (Peter Bull) with the face of a bulldog and a distaste for capitalism, especially when he is offered a cigar “Thank you, no. I do not support the work of capitalist stooges”.

And of course, there’s Dr. Strangelove himself (Sellers once again), a creepy German scientist bound in a wheelchair who constantly grapples with his robotic arm which, at the wrong moment, malfunctions and gets locked in a Nazi salute.

But, by far, the best is George C. Scott as General Buck Turgeson, who tries with all his might to inform the president of the situation but then attempts to lay out unacceptable odds while keeping his composure.  Of this, he fails miserably.  Scott’s performance at that moment is a brilliant juggling act of facial tics, twisted expressions, stutters, thoughts, re-thought thoughts and a whole lot of gum chewing. He has a perfectly modulated moment in that scene when he receives a call from his girlfriend on the red phone, he whispers sweet nothings into the phone then hangs up before turning back to the meeting with a look that only be described as “nonchalant sheepishness”.

Dr. Strangelove is one of the funniest films ever made, it is one of those films that film fans talk and laugh about for hours.  I have always thought it must have have some chutzpah to organize a doomsday comedy in the midst of such real-life dangers and settle it amid a group of characters you wouldn’t trust to babysit your cat.  But then, as I revisited the film not long ago, it struck me that no one would really be ready for a scenario like this, it is so far beyond human comprehension that when we watch this film we have to ask how we would react.

Best Actor

Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady)
The Nominees: Richard Burton (Becket), Peter O’Toole (Becket), Anthony Quinn (Zorba the Greek), Peter Sellers (Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)

Peter Sellers (Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)
My Nominees: James Garner (The Americanization of Emily), Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady), Marcello Mastroianni (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow), Peter O’Toole (Becket), Peter Sellers (A Shot in the Dark)


I am not a fan of My Fair Lady, at least not as a movie. I know this beloved musical has its legion of fans but, for me, there are several elements that don’t work. One of the few elements of the film that does work is Rex Harrison in the role of Professor Henry Higgins with (this authoritative voice, his commentary on Eliza Doolittle’s social inadequacies – “You’ll get much further with the Lord if you learn not to offend His ears.”)

My problem with the film comes from the love story which feels forced. I don’t believe for one moment that Henry Higgins would fall for Eliza Doolittle. He has such distaste for her middling social graces at the beginning that I have a hard time believing that he would come around to falling in love with her. I know that won’t win me any popularity contests, but I must express how I feel.

I am giving my Best Actor prize to Harrison’s fellow nominee and fellow countryman Peter Sellers, who worked so much and so hard in 1964 that it brought on a heart attack. He starred in four films: a television movie Carol for Another Christmas, The World of Henry Orient, A Shot in the Dark (his second appearance as Clouseau) and the film which I am giving him my Best Actor prize, in three roles in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Peter Sellers was a great mimic who could create a gaggle of different characters, no two alike and often within the same film. In Kubrick’s nuclear disaster comedy, he creates three distinct personalities, two of which exist in the same scene.

The first is Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, a duty-bound British RAF officer with a bizarre curly-cue mustache and a voice that reminds me of a bad impression of David Niven. He is the one person in the film that comes closest to recalling the nuclear payload that is about to be mistakenly dropped on the Soviet Union. On duty at Burpelton Air Force Base, he is the first to receive the information that the commanding officer, General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has gone haywire and ordered the airstrike without authorization from the president. His initial reaction: “Ah, hell.” Sellers creates Mandrake as the kind of British officer that holds tight to that old-world style, left over from World War I, from the generation that learned to spell duty with a capitol “D”, yet he seems caught off guard by the insanity brewing around him, especially the awkward peculiarities of his commanding officer.  Befuddled at every moment, Mandrake attempts to recall the errant plane that is headed for Soviet airspace but doesn’t want to overstep his manners to do so.  I love the moment when he confronts Ripper about the plan and then leaves to have the plane recalled. He finds the door locked and, not wanting to overstep his bounds politely tells him, “I’m afraid, sir, I must ask you for the key, and the recall code. Have you got them handy, sir?”

The second is the American President Merkin Muffley, who looks a little like Adlai Stevenson but seems to possess the leadership qualities of Gerald Ford. He remains stoic as General Buck Turgson (George C. Scott) hems and haws as he informs him about Ripper’s actions. What follows is the single funniest moment in the film: He has to make an emergency phone call to Russia’s Premier Kissoff and tries, delicately, to break the news. The call is brilliant as he tries to ease his way into the bad news by informing him that “one of our Generals . . . well . . . he went a little funny in the head. Just a little, you know . . . funny.” Those moments are perfect, but it is the moment following that is comic gold – he informs the Premier what has happened and there is a pause. After a moment, the President looks surprised and politely tells him “Now, calm down, Dimitri”. This film was made in 1964, a year after Lyndon Johnson ascended to the presidency after Kennedy’s assassination and, in a way, today this character stands for all the ineffective, inefficient, bumbling nincompoops who have occupied the presidency ever since. If you don’t believe that is true think how many presidents from that day to this would have said, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in there, this is the War Room!”

The third is the titular doctor, a goony German scientist bound to a wheelchair who is in a cosmic battle with his own robotic hand that, at one point, malfunctions and gets locked in a Nazi salute. Then, at another moment, the hand seems to regard his words as treachery and attempts to strangle him. Strangelove is on hand to suggest a nutty plan to the men in the war room about the possibility of the surviving human beings living in caves after the nuclear fallout and the ratio of men to women to repopulate the earth. With his dark glasses, his Marvin the Martian voice, his ghoulish hairstyle and his ever-present cigarette, we can see that he has a plan in mind that offers nothing less than a sex-mad society where bigamy is the key prospect. The longer we think about the character, the more uncomfortable we become.

Sellers is brilliant is all three roles. He was suppose to play a fourth, Major Kong (the role that went to Slim Pickens) but a broken ankle and Seller’s discomfort with his ability to master a southern accent made him change his mind. We will never know how he would have played the role, but I am happy with the three that he did play because they all display his gifts for playing multiple characters. I liked all three performances but, to be honest, I wouldn’t trust any of them as far as I could throw them.

Best Actress

Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins)
The Nominees:
Anne Bancroft (The Pumpkin Eater), Sophia Loren (Divorce, Italian Style), Debbie Reynolds (The Unsinkable Molly Brown), Kim Stanley (Seance in the Afternoon)

Julie Andrews (The Americanization of Emily)
y Nominees: Ingrid Bergman (The Visit), Sophia Loren (Marriage, Italian Style)


When casting began for the film adaptation of the Lerner and Lowe musical My Fair Lady, Warner Brothers studio boss Jack Warner didn’t want Julie Andrews in the role of Eliza Doolittle despite the fact that she had become a star by creating the role on Broadway.  Andrews had never acted in a film and Warner thought that the lack of a star in the lead would hurt the picture, so he cast the more profitable Audrey Hepburn.  With that opportunity denied, Walt Disney snapped up Andrews for the title role of Mary Poppins, a film that was an enormous hit and made her only the second actress in history to win Best Actress for her film debut.*

When I was a child, Mary Poppins was one of my favorite films, telling the story of the “Practically Perfect” nanny who descends into London (circa 1910) to care for two rambunctious children who have a history of sending their nannies packing.  Mary Poppins treats the children to several magical adventures and through those adventures, the movie has great energy and fun and wonderful music by the legendary Sherman brothers.

Yet, as I grew older I noticed that the heart of the movie is about the disconnection between two children who need the love of their banker father (David Tomlinson), who is too busy building his prestige at his job to even notice them.  That part of the story works beautifully but Mary remains a mystery.  We never learn anything about her. Is she an angel?  A goddess?  An alien?  She descends from a cloud but where does she come from?

Julie Andrews made two films in nineteen sixty-four, her film debut, Mary Poppins, an enormous hit and her follow-up in the title role of the adaptation of William Bradford Huie’s novel The Americanization of Emily, a film that was virtually ignored at the time and rarely viewed today.  I think Andrews gave a much better performance as Emily because here she is able to create a full-blooded character.

The Americanization of Emily is a comedy that takes place on the eve of the D-Day invasion.  Andrews plays Emily Barham, an English war widow who falls in love with Charlie Madison (James Garner), a U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander who confesses that he considers cowardice his religion.  She is shocked by his flippant attitude toward the cause, especially since he works as a “dog-robber”, an officer who pimps goods to his superior like booze, Hershey bars, English whores, anything they desire.  He likes the position because it keeps him making a profit and it keeps him away from the front lines.  Despite her initial disgust (the first time they meet she slaps him), Emily falls in love with Madison despite his crass American ways but, having lost a father, a brother and a husband she is comfortable with his attitude because she cannot bear to lose anyone else to this war.

The prospect of Madison becoming a casualty doesn’t rear its ugly head until he is given an assignment by Admiral William Jessup (Melvyn Douglas), who is going mad under the prospect that all the glory of the D-Day invasion could go to the Army and the Air Corps which would cause the Navy to be marginalized and eventually scrapped.  He assigns Charlie to a nutty plan to film the D-Day invasion with the key task that “the first dead man on Omaha Beach must be a sailor” so that a new monument could re-energize the Navy’s publicity: “The Tomb of the Unknown Sailor.”

The plan is absurd, especially since it is coming from a man who has been known to crack-up at a moments notice.  He tries to talk some sense into his superiors and his colleagues but they are so gung-ho about Jessup’s plan that they can’t be reasoned with, especially Charlie’s fellow Lieutenant Commander “Bus” Cummings (James Coburn), who becomes just as volcanic about the idea as Jessup.

The whole thing is insane, but at the center of this story is Emily’s cool head.  She stands by Charlie’s coward’s code, not just because it keeps him safe, but because it is his code, his badge of honor.  She is the story’s dramatic center, a more sensible head in the middle of the madness.  We see in her, the honorable English stiff-upper-lip dedication to king and country, yet she’s not a cliché.  She loves her country, and this man and we believe it because she is so sincere.  “I believe in honor, service, courage, and fair play, and cricket, and all the other symbols of British character,” she tells Charlie, “Which have only civilized half the world!”

Having seen most of Julie Andrews film work, she never stops surprising me.  She has many notes to play, many characters to play that can do more than just sing and dance.  I’m amazed how often I find a buried treasure that shows me what else she can do as a performer.  The best roles for her were the ones where she seemed to add an extra dimension to the character that we don’t expect.  We see Emily as the picture of a generation that spelled duty with a capital “D” but there is an emotional level that allows her to see Charlie for the man that he is, not the man that she thinks he ought to be.  He is true to himself and that is what she loves.

All through her career, Julie Andrews best characters stood by difficult, selfish men because she could see something beneath their over-inflated ego.  A year after The Americanization of Emily, she would play Maria in The Sound of Music, breaking the cold demeanor of the rigid Colonel Von Trapp.  Then there was Duet for One, in which she plays a concert violinist who contracts Multiple Sclerosis but also has to deal with an alcoholic husband who can’t deal with it. Then, another buried treasure, That’s Life, directed by her husband Blake Edwards, she plays the wife of a man suffering a mid-life crisis while she awaits the results of a throat biopsy.  What she displays in these roles is the ability to pierce through their defensive facade and see the sulking child within.  She always plays strong, devoted women, and that is what I love about her.


* Only four actresses that have won the Best Actress Oscar for their film debut: Shirley Booth for Come Back, Little Sheba (1952), Julie Andrews for Mary Poppins (1964), Barbra Streisand for Funny Girl (1968) and Marlee Matlin for Children of a Lesser God (1986).

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