Armchair Oscars – 1967

Best Picture

In the Heat of the Heat (Directed by Norman Jewison)
The Nominees: Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Doolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Bonnie and Clyde  (Directed by Arthur Penn)
My Nominees: 
La Samourai (Jean Pierre-Melville)


At the very moment that violence was breaking out in American cities over Vietnam and Civil Rights, the academy voters selected as their 1967 Best Picture winner a film that tried to address the problem of the country’s race relations. Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night, established the tense racial division by packaging it as a standard police thriller. The film proved very little in terms of social progress, but it was an acting tour-de-force for both Rod Steiger as a Mississippi sheriff and Sidney Poitier as a Chicago detective who is reluctantly enlisted to help him solve the murder of a local businessman.

It was a good film but not a significant one. My choice, on the other hand, is one of the few films of the 1960s that is credited with changing the direction of American film. Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde was a fast-moving, romanticized biopic about the legendary duo that robbed and killed their way across the Southwest in the early days of the depression. It was like nothing anyone had ever seen before, employing shocking bits of violence and two heroes who are gun-happy criminals.

Bonnie and Clyde is a biopic but Penn doesn’t have much use for the facts. This is a highly stylized version that only uses the framework of this true outlaw story. The point of the film is the characters, they meet, they talk, they do stupid things, they feed their own legacy and ultimately they go down in a hail of bullets.

Bonnie Parker meets Clyde Barrow one morning as she looks out her window and sees him trying to steal her mother’s car.  He looks the car over in the manner of a man intending to buy.  They talk, she likes him, he takes her for a ride and before you know it, they are robbing banks and grocery stores. It isn’t the profit she is interested in, she just likes Clyde’s fearlessness and the fact that he makes armed robbery look like a fun little game.

That’s the point of the crime – it isn’t the rewards, but the adrenaline from the act itself. We understand very early on that Bonnie and Clyde are not very good criminals. On his first bank holdup, the teller laughs as he informs him that the bank went under three weeks ago, and Clyde walks out with $1.98. Holding up a grocery store for food, he nearly loses his hand when a butcher attacks him with a meat cleaver. The crimes are not presented as realism and all through the film we see the manic zeal with which they approach each holdup. They act less like desperadoes and more like rowdy kids on a spree of mischief.

They also lack the talent for planning. Most of their jobs are done on the spur of the moment and when they are caught off guard, it usually turns fatal. They recruit several people for their gang but probably regret it later. First is C.W. (Michael J. Pollard), who leaves his job at a gas station and joins them because he knows how to fix cars. Then he recruits his brother Buck (Gene Hackman) who is all too willing to go along but unfortunately has to drag along his wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons). They rob banks without a second thought but they usually find a kink in the plan, as when Clyde is forced to shoot a bank manager in the face during a getaway because C.W. parked the getaway car.

They are lousy criminals but they have charm and a talent for spinning their own publicity. Walking into a bank, Clyde announces “Good afternoon, this is the Barrow Gang,” and Bonnie writes poetry about their exploits and sends them off to the newspaper in an effort to feed their publicity.  Unfortunately, as their fame grows, so does the determination of the police to find them. A pall of death hangs over the gang’s heads and even seems to be in the landscape as in a scene when Bonnie runs frightened into a field and a dark cloud rolls in just overhead.

A visit to Bonnie’s mother is the saddest scene in the film. Bonnie wants to move in next door to her mother but her mother, all the wiser, informs her that this is the best way to find herself in an early grave. The woman seems to be in a state of shock, whimpering as she says “You know Clyde, I read about you all in the papers, and I just get scared.” Her daughter tries to reassure her but it’s no use and as they leave, the old lady mournfully says, “Bye, baby,” somehow sensing that it is the last time.

What is amazing about this film is the delirium with which these two lovers commit these crimes. Clyde is impotent but it is never spoken of, both he and Bonnie know it and so the rush of the crimes makes for a surrogate sexual charge. They get so caught up in what they are doing that it becomes a source of food and of money. Then as their fame grows, they become hooked on the luster of their own fame. Eventually, of course, it pushes them into a trap as lawmen from several states hear about their crime spree and become part of the pursuit. Bonnie and Clyde become the victims of their own addiction, they become so notorious that we aren’t surprised that they go down in a hail of bullets. We have to ask, what lawman wouldn’t want to be the guy who got to proudly say, “Yep! I was one of the fellas that shot Bonnie and Clyde”.

Best Actor

Rod Steiger (In the Heat of the Night)
The Nominees: Warren Beatty (Bonnie and Clyde), Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke), Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate), Spencer Tracy (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner)

Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke
My Nominees:
Warren Beatty (Bonnie and Clyde), Alain Delon (La Samourai), Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate)


Films are the most important of all the arts. They are the most expressive, the most engaging, and the most debated. The most important aspect of this art form is the fact that it is the great mile marker of our times. A film can put a time stamp on the era in which it is made and forever express how people saw their world and their society at that precise moment. They can express attitudes about times and places as no other medium can.

I think In the Heat of the Night is intended to be such a film.  This crime drama, about the efforts of a white Mississippi sheriff and black Chicago police detective, to solve the murder of a local businessman, had good intentions but is not quite as challenging as it might have been.  The strength of the film lies in the performances by Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier, who both give spendid performances in an otherwise ordinary film.  Both actors were nominated but Steiger took home the Oscar.  I am not really sure why, his character isn’t all that special and hardly changes over the course of the film.

In the Heat of the Night was intended to be a mirror of its time, but I think Cool Hand Luke does a much better job.  Released in the same year as the “summer of love,” it also came out in the midst of one of the most violent periods of the 20th century, when the images of violence between protesters and police were becoming an uncomfortable routine. This film correctly displays the way most Americans saw their country and felt about the authority that was running it. It features Paul Newman’s single greatest performance and one of the most painful ordeals for a single actor.  Paul Newman not only deserved an Oscar, I think he deserved a medal. I can’t think of another character in movie history that has gone through more grueling physical punishment and psychological torture.

The film’s opening image stays with me. We see a close-up of a green traffic light that turns red, signaling the stranglehold that the law will have on our hero. We first see Luke Jackson, drunk and committing the childish crime of knocking the heads off parking meters.  Thrown into a work camp, he immediately falls under the thumb of the Captain (Strother Martin), a man small in stature with the voice of a sweet old granny and a famous observation about Luke’s misbehavior that “What we got here is failure to communicate,” and the reminder to his men that “Some men, you just can’t reach.” Luke is addicted to his own misbehavior and the rest of the film becomes a tug-of-war between he and the captain over his seeming addiction to resisting authority.

Life in the prison camp is brilliantly established in the landscape.  This is the south in the scorching heat as the men work and are covered in sweat and dirt. They do road work, they dig ditches, they put fresh tar on the pavement, and cinematographer Conrad Hall has moments where he turns the camera up toward the sun and back down to the glistening sweat on the inmate’s bodies.  Escape is deterred by an outsized Boss Godfrey (Morgan Woodward), who never speaks and never takes off his reflective sunglasses. He has a fearsome mystique and his rifle is always at hand.

The prisoners are lorded over by Dragline (Supporting Actor winner George Kennedy), a large imposing inmate who ends up in the boxing ring with Luke when the new man challenges his authority. In a standard drama, Luke would have been beaten and then at the last moment, come back and uppercut his opponent, knocking him cold, but that’s not the point here.  Luke is beaten unmercifully by Dragline but he keeps getting up and keeps taking more punishment. His refusal to be down but not out earns him Dragline’s respect and the respect of his fellow inmates who admire his tenacity.

The point becomes Luke’s struggle against authority. He escapes several times only to be dragged back to the camp to be put to work doing harder and harder tasks. Where is he escaping to? What will he do when he gets there? I don’t think that’s the point, I think the point is how much this man can take. Time and again he is beaten, time and again he is forced to do harder and harder work. Why? Is he addicted to misdeeds? Or is he addicted to the punishment? Does he see himself at a redeemer? We know that he can never win, that he can never escape and that the same routine will occur over and over again. I think Luke is addicted to seeing just how far he can go, proving to himself that he can be down but never out.

Much had been made by film historians of Luke being a figure that represents Christ with all his suffering and his attempts to redeem himself. In the end, he is holed up in a small church and asks God if he has been forsaken. I don’t really see the connection to Christ; I think Luke represents those in America in the late 1960s who resisted authority, resisted the cruel and the corrupt and were beaten and hit with water cannons for their trouble. They could never win but they could not back down from a system that seemed to be trying to devalue them.

I think Luke is also challenging his maker. At the end he cries out to God, “It’s beginnin’ to look like you got things fixed so I can’t never win out. Inside, outside, all them rules and regulations and bosses. You made me like I am. Just where am I supposed to fit in? Ol’ Man, I gotta tell ya. I started out pretty strong and fast. But it’s beginnin’ to get to me. When does it end?” I think many people at that time were asking the same question.

Best Actress

Katharine Hepburn (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?)
The Nominees: Anne Bancroft (The Graduate), Faye Dunaway (Bonnie and Clyde), Edith Evans (The Whisperers), Audrey Hepburn (Wait Until Dark)

Catherine Denueve (Belle de jour)
y Nominees: Edith Evans (The Whisperers), Audrey Hepburn (Two for the Road)


Katharine Hepburn never gave an uninteresting performance but to be honest, I wouldn’t want to spend an evening with any of the four films that brought her an Oscar. Least of all is her performance in Stanley Kramer’s noble Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as Christina Drayton who plays peacemaker between her ultra-conservative husband (Spencer Tracy in his farewell performance) and her daughter (Katharine Houghton) who is about to marry a black man (Sidney Poitier). For 1967, this subject could not have been timelier but neither the movie nor Hepburn’s performance are all that extraordinary. She is missing the crucial stand-out scenes that would distinguish her; mostly she just dutifully stands up or stands behind her conflicted husband.

Hepburn’s win was a sympathy vote. She had not been seen on screen in nearly a decade and here she had shown that she hadn’t lost her spark. Plus she had just lost her longtime lover Spencer Tracy, who died six months before the film was released (for this reason, Hepburn said she never saw the film).

My choice for Best Actress of 1967 is Catherine Denueve, who received no sympathy and no Oscar nomination, no awards of any kind for her memorable performance as a housewife whose sexual fantasies lead her into the world of afternoon prostitution in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour. Of all the work in her long career, this will be the performance for which she will always be remembered.

At the center of Belle de Jour, Denueve plays Séverine Serizy, a bored housewife married to Pierre (Jean Sorel), a doctor who is nice without charm, handsome without being extraordinary and loving without passion. He is nice to her, he loves her but there isn’t any fire in their relationship (they sleep in separate beds) and frequently Séverine retreats into a world of bizarre fantasies. There, she imagines strange scenarios from her various turn-ons which seem to consist mostly of acts of humiliation. The film opens with one of those fantasies as she is riding in a horse-drawn carriage with Pierre when he becomes angry with her and orders the carriage drivers to haul her into the woods, strip her and beat her with a buggy whip before making passionate love to her. Another, later in the film, has her dressed in a white gown as Pierre and his friend tie her up and throw wet mud at her.  To each his own, I guess.

What is amazing is that Buñuel doesn’t try and make Séverine’s fantasies erotic to us, these fantasies are hers. We are privy to her turn-ons even when we don’t fully understand them. She has strange affinity for the sound of jingling bells and cat’s meowing. She also acts upon the impulse to work in a brothel. This is the main subject of the film as Séverine hears about such places that she didn’t think existed anymore. It intrigues her, so she dresses in black with dark glasses (like a man in a coat going to a porn theater) and visits the home of the kindly Madame Anais (Geneviéve Page), who runs a business that consists of two other girls, housewives who work in the afternoons when their husbands are working.

Séverine is so nervous that she changes her mind and leaves Madame Anais’ house only to return later in the day. Choosing the name Belle de Jour (which literally means “Beauty of the Day” and because she only works in the afternoons), she takes the job and finds that Madame Anais’s clients consist mostly of middle-aged men and their fantasies. One, which Séverine fails to please, likes to play a scenario in which he is the bumbling servant of a Duchess. Another is an Asian man who shows the girls an object in a box that is buzzing. We never get to see that object but whatever it is, it works magic on Séverine (we see the aftermath of their encounter with a pleased look on her face). We don’t know what he did to her but it might have helped that we see him using a small bell as foreplay.

One of the clients brings one of the most bizarre fantasies of Séverine’s adventure. She goes to the vast manor belonging to a Duke, where she is required to strip and then put on a black see-through garment and veil (this brings the film’s only bit of nudity) and lie in a coffin in the Duke’s study pretending to be dead. The Duke comes in and begins talking to his supposedly departed beauty and then crawls under the casket and begins doing something. We aren’t sure what, but the casket begins shaking. We aren’t sure exactly what he’s doing under there.

The film eventually comes to a head when Séverine caters to two clients who are clearly mobsters. She gets involved with a disgusting punk with a mouthful of metal teeth who keeps demanding to know her name. His obsession with her (she likes the fact that he treats her like crap) leads to a conclusion that I am not sure is reality or fantasy. The ending is (for me) a little vague, and I have heard that even Buñuel said he couldn’t explain it. The point is not plot, the point is perspective. This is an erotic fantasy that (for once) takes place from the point of view of a woman. Denueve is wonderful as she gets involved in the machinations of her own fantasies without appearing to us like a sexual oddball. She approaches her sexual dalliances with the kind of nervousness that anyone would.

There is a lot of sexual freedom in this movie, not dirty scenerios but the kinds of eroticism that can only be appreciated by those who aren’t just looking for the “good parts.” There is no explicit sex in this movie, it all takes place in the mind. It takes place in a woman’s mind (which is rare for a film) and from Denueve, we can peer into a fantasy world that is bold, original and often very erotic – even if we don’t always understand it.

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