Oscar 2008: Oscar 1968–Comparison

As the calendar year has just ended, it may be instructive to look back at the achievements of 2008 in terms of the Best Picture Oscar contest.  For the prophets of gloom (occasionally I am one of them), who lament the inevitable artistic decline of Hollywood movies, I’d like to offer a comparison with the five Best Picture nominees in 1968, 40 years ago.


In 1968, the five nominated films (in alphabetical order) were: “Funny Girl,” “The Lion in Winter,” “Oliver!” “Rachel, Rachel,” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Analyzing that list, I am not nostalgic for Hollywood of yesteryear, and refuse to believe that “they don’t make them anymore as they used to….”

Two of the nominees were old-fashioned musicals, based on Broadway hits: “Funny Girl” and Oliver!” which won the Best Picture.  Starring Barbra Streisand, who recreated her stage role for which she shared the Best Actress Oscar with Katharine Hepburn, “Funny Girl” is an enjoyable but not a particularly good musical, perhaps a result of the fact that it was made by William Wyler, a director more adept at dramas than musicals (or comedies).


Nominated for the largest number of Oscars, 11, and winning 5, the British musical import “Oliver!” is also not the best sampler of the genre, past or present.  Like “Funny Girl,” it was directed by a talented filmmaker who had no special interest or skills in making musicals, Carol Reed.


In one of Oscar’s peculiarities, Reed finally won the Best Director Oscar, as a function of the sweep factor, and perhaps as compensation for having been nominated before, for “The Fall Idol (1949) and “The Third Man” (1950, both superior achievements to “Oliver!” and superlative political thrillers in their own right. So much for according the Director Oscar for filmmakers’ best work!


James Goldman’s stage play, “The Lion in Winter,” was transferred to the screen by British director Anthony Harvey with major stars, Peter O’Toole and Hepburn, replacing the original players, Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris. A gossipy, modern version of court intrigues, the movie is marked by such anachronistic dialogue as the Queen saying, “Hush, dear, mother’s fighting,” or better, “Well, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs.”  As a marital drama, it recalls Lillian Hellman’s play “The Little Foxes” and Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” both of which made into popular, Oscar-caliber movies in 1941 and 1966, respectively.


Which leaves us with Franco Zeffirelli’s fluent, lavishly mounted but a bit shallow “Romeo and Juliet,” which deservedly won the cinematography and costume design Oscars.  The fifth nominee was Paul Newman’s feature directorial debut, the intimate small-town melodrama “Rachel, Rachel,” boasting a strong performance from his wife-actress Joanne Woodward.


As noted, in an unprecedented move, that happened only once in the Academy’s history, a tie was declared in the Best Actress category between Streisand and Katharine Hepburn, who won her third Oscar for “The Lion in Winter.” There has been only one tie in the Best Actor category, in 1931-32, when Wallace Beery (“The Champ”) and Frederic March (“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”) split the Best Actor Oscar.


And what’s this year like in terms of Oscar contenders.  As of today, the seven or eight films vying for the five Best Picture nominations are (in alphabetical order): David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “The Dark Knight,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Milk,” “Revolutionary Road,” and “Slumdog Millionaire.”  Disney’s sophisticated and enchanting “Wall-E” is sure to receive a nomination in the animated category and has a slight chance of being nominated for the top prize, the Best Picture.  I believe the L.A. Film Critics, of which I am a member, are the only major group to have honored “Wall-E” as Best Film of the Year; the runner up was “The Dark Knight.”


It’s probably a coincidence that one of the best films this year alos has Rachel in its title: Jonathan Demme’s small-town drama “Rachel Getting Married,” which is as well-acted as Newman’s 1968 film, but far more poignant, modernist, and technically impressive film.  </spa N>Demme’s feature is on my Top Ten List, and Anne Hathaway’s bravura lead performance should be honored by her peers in the Actors Branch, but the film is not likely to be nominated for the coveted award.


I have reviewed each of these films in great detail, so suffice is to say that, no matter which of those make the final cut, the contending films and the directors behind them have nothing to be ashamed for when contrasting their accomplishments with the nominated and winning films of 1968.

What’s your opinion?  Are Hollywood movies in decline?  Is the Best Picture contest reflecting the year’s most interesting and accomplished films?