Friday, April 7, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1969

The Contenders:

Arthur Penn: Alice’s Restaurant
George Roy Hill: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
John Schlesinger: Midnight Cowboy (winner)
Sydney Pollack: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Costa Gavras: Z

What’s Missing

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.

My Choice

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.

Final Analysis


  1. I haven't seen Alice's Restaurant or your winner so I really can't comment. In my book, it would have to be really spectacular to beat out Z. I love that film!

    1. I think it's the most gripping film of its decade. I can't recommend it highly enough, although you won't want to watch anything (or do anything) for the rest of the day.

  2. This is an exceptionally strong lineup and the only one I’d pluck out is the same as yours. Alice’s Restaurant just isn’t at the same level as the other four.

    That said I wouldn’t have a problem yanking the Oscar out of John Schlesinger’s hand despite feeling that he’s a great director and Midnight Cowboy is a fine film. But it would be much more of a struggle with the trio of others. The most pleasurable of the three is Butch & Sundance but the power that Z retains to hold the audience rapt despite being in a foreign tongue can’t be discounted. But then Horses is an emotional gut punch that in lesser hands would be too bleak to hold together so an almost impossible decision. Today I’d say They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? but that could change tomorrow.

    Happy to see you mention Michael Sarrazin’s contribution to the film. His work is often discounted because as the audience surrogate he’s more recessive then the other characters but he plays it very sharply letting his bewilderment at the bizarre situation he finds himself in reflect ours at watching it unfold. I have to throw in a mention for Susannah York’s brilliant performance of the hopeful but ultimately broken Alice, she’s amazing and should have taken the Supporting Actress prize that year. Goldie Hawn was adorable and wonderful in Cactus Flower but against this stunning work just not the best of the year.

    I detest Easy Rider so I can’t get behind a nod for Hopper. Sam Peckinpah’s work on Wild Bunch wouldn’t be out of place but I’d add a few others before him. Jean-Pierre Melville for Army of Shadows and Sergio Leone for Once Upon a Time in the West would make good additions but my choice to take Penn’s slot would be Haskell Wexler for Medium Cool. If he had been in the mix than I would strongly lean towards him as the winner. He uses both his cinematographer's eye and knowledge of documentary filmmaking to blend the fictional and real in Medium Cool making it immediate, fascinating and unique.

    1. Medium Cool is one I've heard of but haven't seen. I suppose I should add it to the growing list of films that I should watch. The more films I see, the more I realize how many more there are to see.

      My opinion on who should win this, honestly, is the same as yours. In a week, I could hand this to George Roy Hill or Costa Gavras and be just as happy (and just as conflicted) with my choice. It's a hell of a strong class. That makes these posts interesting, but also makes them difficult to do and almost impossible to feel confident in the final decision. Butch and Sundance is the most likable of the films in almost every respect, but the fact that They Shoot Horses is bleak without falling apart is the reason I chose it. Well, that and the fact that Pollack dragged that staggering performance out of Jane Fonda, who is the most aggressively defeated character I can think of. She fights on, knowing she'll lose, more or less to remind the world that she's still there.

      As for Easy Rider, I think it's one that can go either way, and of the films I've seen that I think are worthy, it is the one I wouldn't include. I like what Hopper does with the film even if I don't adore the film.

  3. I love that the Academy gave the statue to John Schlesinger, that was a bold and uncharacteristic move of the Academy and one that pointed forward and not backward. A lot of what works her come from the director.
    My runner-up would gave to be Costa Gavras, although the winner here is the screenplay

    1. I don't entirely disagree with you. This was a hard year to pick, because the lineup is so good.