Arthur Penn: Alice’s Restaurant
George Roy Hill: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
John Schlesinger: Midnight Cowboy (winner)
Sydney Pollack: The Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Costa Gavras: Z
I genuinely like all five of the films nominated here and I genuinely like four of the nominations, seeing only one that I’d want to replace. There’s almost always room for improvement, and even the four nominations I like might be worth improving a little. My Night at Maud’s is likely too cerebral in general and too slow for more serious consideration. Peter Collinson’s work on The Italian Job might be worth a mention for the inventive driving sequences, but only in a lesser year. Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run is a lot of fun, and I love the mock documentary style of it, but it’s not really substantial enough for Best Director. The two significant misses, the ones that would make me really have to think about including only five of what I think are six deserving directors, are Dennis Hopper’s work on Easy Rider (which is probably the one that doesn’t make the cut) and Sam Peckinpah’s work in The Wild Bunch.
Weeding through the Nominees
5. With Dennis Hopper and Sam Peckinpah sitting on the sidelines, I simply do not understand what Arthur Penn is doing here. Alice’s Restaurant has its charms. It’s an entertaining movie that has a message it wants to deliver and does so in a fun and interesting way. But most of this really comes from Arlo Guthrie’s song from whence we get the plot. It’s also oddly disjointed in places, which means that Penn’s nomination may simply be for pulling a narrative thread out of a long ramble.
4. And now things get difficult, because I think a solid case can be made for all four of the remaining directors. I think everything left should be in at least second place. Because of this, I feel a little guilty putting actual winner John Schlesinger in fourth. I understand fully why Schlesinger won for Midnight Cowboy, and I agree that it really is a damn fine performance for a director. So why is he fourth? Because I simply like the other three films from the director’s perspective more than I do this one. I get the choice; it’s just not my choice.
3. I’m equally conflicted and guilty putting Costa Gavras in third for Z, which is one of the best political thrillers ever made. What he does well here is incite the audience to indignation and rage at the events that happen on the screen. It’s an important film, and a great deal of its importance comes from how the story is told. It’s also a film that, despite being made almost 50 years ago, is still politically relevant today, and probably will be for the rest of human history. I love this nomination, and in a weaker year, I wouldn’t hesitate to hand a statue to Costa Gavras. Just not in 1969.
2. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of the great movies of its year and its decade. Much of that comes from the near-perfect chemistry between Paul Newman and Robert Redford, who are the main reason that the film is so damn charming. But, a great deal of the credit also goes to George Roy Hill for finding and developing that chemistry. This is a film that wants to be a lot of things—an action film, a comedy, a romance—and it manages to do all of it believably and well. In many other years, this would be my choice without question. It’s just not the right choice for 1969.
1. My winner is They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Sydney Pollack. A lot of the power of this film comes from Michael Sarrazin and Gig Young, some from Red Buttons, and a truckload from the staggering and fearless performance of Jane Fonda, but much of it also comes from Pollack’s work. This is a film about exploitation and degradation, about doing everything possible to survive and still not surviving often enough. Pollack’s work is brutal and unrelenting, just like the film it is in service of. It’s my pick, but I fully understand someone choosing any of the top four I have listed here.