Friday, February 24, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1968

The Contenders:

Stanley Kubrick: 2001: A Space Odyssey
Gillo Pontecorvo: The Battle of Algiers
Anthony Harvey: The Lion in Winter
Carol Reed: Oliver! (winner)
Franco Zeffirelli: Romeo and Juliet

What’s Missing

I was surprised at how many movies from what seems like the unassuming year of 1968 turn out to be really noteworthy, especially in the area of director. The actual list of nominees is decent, but far from perfect. Just off the top, Sergio Leone’s work in Once Upon a Time in the West seems like a huge miss. The same is true of Roman Polanski and Rosemary’s Baby. Faces from John Cassavetes would have been an interesting nomination. I like a lot of what Norman Jewison did with The Thomas Crown Affair as well. The same is true of Peter Yates and Bullitt, which rewrote the way car chases are made. Nicholas Roeg’s Performance might deserve some acknowledgement as well. In the “not really Oscar, but…” category, there are films like The Producers from Mel Brooks, the surprising Targets from Peter Bogdanovich, Lindsay Anderson’s work on If…., and George Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I love Carol Reed, but Oliver! doesn’t belong here at all. Reed absolutely deserved an Oscar at some point in his career, but giving him one for this film is so wrong it’s almost depressing. This could be viewed as a sort of career Oscar given in a competitive category, but I think there’s a better explanation. Reed’s win here feels much more like the last gasp of classic Hollywood trying to keep the industry where it was rather than having it turn into what it did in the years following. This may not be Oscar’s worst moment, but it’s in the running.

4. The main selling point of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet is that it is a truly beautiful film. I will not take that away from it. I’m not convinced that it’s a great film, though. In fact, I think it won the Oscars it should have: Best Costume Design and Best Cinematography. I’ll admit to some bias here. I don’t like the story. I’ve never liked the story and it’s one of my least favorites of Shakespeare’s plays. In the best of situations, I’m never going to love it, and while Zeffirelli’s work is good, he wouldn’t make my list of nominations.

3. Part of a director’s job is getting the best performances he or she can from the cast. Anthony Harvey did that with The Lion in Winter. Both Katherine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole give monster performances here, and while we tend to expect that of them both, part of that credit goes to Harvey. That said, I’m not sure given the other films that weren’t nominated in this year that I would nominate this myself. Hepburn, yes. O’Toole, yes. Harvey? I’d need to be convinced with Leone, Jewison, Polanski, Yates, and even Romero still on the sidelines.

2. In a lot of years, my vote would go for Gillo Pontecorvo and The Battle of Algiers. In fact, had he been nominated in 1966 when the film was actually released, he’d almost certainly be my winner without much of a question. Pontecorvo’s track record as a documentarian is on full display here, and that’s a huge part of what gives this film its power. The film asks a lot of questions and doesn’t really offer any real answers. That’s smart filmmaking, and moves this into a rarified position of a film that should be watched by everyone. Pontecorvo simply had the bad luck of being nominated in 1968.

My Choice

1. Say what you will about 2001: A Space Odyssey, there is nothing else like it. I think Stanley Kubrick should have won multiple Oscars in his career, and while there are certain ways in which I think 2001 is overrated, it is one of the most singular visions to ever appear projected on a screen. I freely admit that this is not a film I want to watch that often, but it is a truly amazing achievement. This is one of those rare films that I feel guilty calling a “movie.” This is art, and while Arthur C. Clarke gets some of the credit, this is entirely Kubrick’s vision on the screen. Like it or not, Kubrick did something here that had never been done before, and that should have been recognized.

Final Analysis


  1. Of these choices, and despite the fact that I love Lion in the Winter much, much more, I would agree with your choice of 2001 and Kubrick. I don't really enjoy the film but it is unique unto itself and that's mostly because of Kubrick. Since the decision should be based on artistic merit in the director race rather than pleasure in the film, though ideally it should offer both, he gets the prize.

    Of the others I like Oliver! quite a bit but much of that is built into the story and the actual film can be clunky. R&J is pretty and well done but not extraordinary and Battle of Algiers, while it wouldn't make my cut, is a visceral and compelling experience which is guided well by its director.

    My alternate lineup would run like this:

    Jacques Demy-The Young Girls of Rochefort-A '67 release in France it didn't hit stateside until '68.
    Anthony Harvey-The Lion in Winter
    Stanley Kubrick-2001
    Roman Polanski-Rosemary's Baby-Winner-How the hell was this not nominated?
    Peter Yates-Bullitt

    1. I don't love (or, really, hate) The Young Girls of Rochefort, but I'll agree that the direction is very good. I'd replace it in your list with The Battle of Algiers because of its American release date, and I wouldn't have many quibbles about that list, although I might want Leone instead of Yates.

      How Polanski managed to not be nominated I will never understand. While I think Chinatown is probably his most complete package as a filmmaker, Rosemary's Baby is a triumph of storytelling.

      Your take on 2001 is about the same as mine. I don't love the film, but I respect the hell out of it, and most of that comes from what Kubrick did with it. Using your alternate list, I'd still put Kubrick in as my winner with Polanski second, and it would be a very close second.

  2. The only difference I might make to your list is swap Romeo and Juliet with The Lion in Winter; I love Zeffirelli's film, but I did also enjoy The Lion in Winter.

    Yes to what you said about The Battle of Algiers: it is such a wonderful film, and would win any other year. But really, nothing beats 2001. Unlike you, I also love this, as well as respecting it.

    And Polanski and Leone definitely should have been nominated, and if they had won in this alternate univers, I would not have quibbled. Yet another great year for films!

    1. I don't know how much I would complain had Polanski or Leone been nominated and won. Still, I think this was Kubrick's award to lose.

  3. Of the options, I do agree with 2001. However, Romero's directorial vision literally changed cinematic and literary zombies forever. Historically, his director vision had a much bigger impact on our culture and still does. So retrospectively, Night of the Living Dead and Romero should get it.

  4. I am torn between Leone og Kubrick, but where Leone merely improved on his style, Kubrick delivered something entirely new.

    1. I think you could go either way and argue for being right.