February 24, 2011

5 My Oscar Picks, Part 6 Contiued: 1964

This is a continuation of the post on past Academy Awards, comparing the winners with my own choices, that I began last week. I'll be covering the years 1961-1965, presenting my thoughts on one year each day this week. Today: 1964.


The Winner: My Fair Lady
My Pick: Dr. Strangelove

The Winner: George Cukor, My Fair Lady
My Pick: Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove

The Winner: Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady
My Pick: Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady

The Winner: Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins
My Pick: Anne Bancroft, The Pumpkin Eater

The Winner: Peter Ustinov, Topkapi
My Pick: Stanley Holloway, My Fair Lady

The Winner: Lila Kedrova, Zorba the Greek
My Pick: Lila Kedrova, Zorba the Greek

The Winner: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
My Pick: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

I've always felt that in general Hollywood has been more successful with musicals based on original material than with those adapted from Broadway plays. Such films are obligated to follow their stage antecedents closely; that's why they get made in the first place. So the emphasis becomes not on re-imagining the play for the screen, but in going all out for production values while preserving as much of the original stage version as possible. That is exactly what keeps My Fair Lady from being a great musical film rather than just a very good one. George Cukor has said he deliberately chose to reproduce the stylization of the stage production, and the result is a film that is in all its details superb—lovely sets, costumes, and photography, and few musicals have songs this good or this well integrated with the plot—but as a whole a bit sterile. Dr. Strangelove, though, is as bold as My Fair Lady is cautious, a political black comedy that is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying, Duck Soup for the nuclear age. So Dr. Strangelove and its director, Stanley Kubrick, get my votes for best picture and director.

For best actor I still went with Rex Harrison's Prof. Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, the signature role of his long film and stage career. It not only preserves for posterity one of the great stage performances, but it's also a great film performance. For me Anne Bancroft is the great American screen actress of the 1960s, and I chose her intense performance in The Pumpkin Eater as the best of the year, a performance that also won her a Golden Globe and a BAFTA award. I'm a longtime fan of the veteran British character actor Stanley Holloway and chose him as best supporting actor for his exuberant Alfred Dolittle in My Fair Lady, a role he played in the Broadway production. For best supporting actress, I went with the Academy's choice of Lila Kedrova in Zorba the Greek, in a role of great pathos that Simone Signoret had originally accepted but backed out of at the last minute. The Academy gave the award for best foreign language film to Vittorio de Sica's pleasant but slight comedy Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. At least two of the other nominees were clearly better—the Japanese film Woman in the Dunes (whose director, Hiroshi Teshigahara, received a nomination as best director the following year, after it opened commercially in the US) and my choice, Jacques Demy's charming musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Biggest omission: The Servant for best film, director, actor (Dirk Bogarde), supporting actor (James Fox), and supporting actress (Sarah Miles).

Tomorrow I'll continue with my thoughts on the Academy Awards for 1965.


  1. R.D.

    Dr. Strangelove would get my vote and I agree about Hollywood doing better with musicals when they go with original material (West Side Story is the exception for me). Even today, The musical version of THE PRODUCERS was terrible (I saw the stage play in NY and it was wonderful. The play was still in previews and who was in the audience? Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft and Gene Wilder). Sorry for the side track, anyway STRANGELOVE is one of the great anti-war films, a masterpiece while MY FAIR LADY is entertaining at best.

  2. For me, the biggest oversight came in the Best Song category. Neither "Goldfinger" or any of the songs from "A Hard Day's Night" were nominated.

    Anthony Quinn is such a presence in "Zorba the Greek" that I forget he didn't win that year. But Harrison was so good in his signature role, I can't complain.

    No complaints about your "Dr. Strangelove" pick either.

    Really enjoying these entries.

  3. John, I certainly agree that "West Side Story" defies my generalization about original musicals being better. Another is "Gigi," which I picked as best picture of 1958. It just doesn't seem to me like a movie version of a stage musical, not surprising considering that Minnelli directed it. For years I thought it WAS an original movie musical that just happened to have songs by Lerner and Loewe.

    Kevin, this is the point at which for me the best song category starts to become irrelevant. If you look at previous nominees and winners, the slate is packed with songs that became standards, part of the Great American Songbook. That not a single song from "A Hard Day's Night" was nominated is astounding. The wonderful love ballads "If I Fell" and "And I Love Her" would probably have been the most palatable to Academy voters. Why one or the other wasn't nominated is beyond me. In comparison the songs that were nominated are terrible. And Anthony Quinn is great in "Zorba." It's a movie and performance that made a tremendous impression on me and the role I associate with Quinn above all others.

  4. Great post again. It's interesting what you say about film adaptations of stage musicals vs. original movie musicals, particularly in this year with "Mary Poppins" also nominated for best picture. As you know, I worship Audrey Hepburn, so it may surprise many that I don't love "My Fair Lady." The musical itself is brilliant, but the movie feels confined to me, whereas "Mary Poppins" has so much energy, even though both were made on sound stages.

    Also, one point to make: "Gigi" was an original movie musical. They took the play "Gigi" and added music to it for the film. Apparently Lerner and Lowe were concerned about its similarities to "My Fair Lady," and producer Arthur Freed said something like "It doesn't have to be different; it just has to be good."

    I totally agree with the best song nominees. The songwriting branch just kept nominating the same songwriters over and over even when the music was changing.

    I have a weird relationship with "Dr. Strangelove." I admire its brilliance more than embracing it, so I'm not sure what I would select as best picture.

  5. Filmboy, thanks for clearing up my confusion about "Gigi." I guess I was right in the first place. IMDb says the movie was based on a stage musical, but all other sources I checked contradict this. A stage musical was developed from the film years after the movie but was apparently unsuccessful.

    Good point about the best song nominees, in fact the nominees in all categories but best picture, being named by the branch involved. There was clearly an in-group who kept nominating the people in their group. That's why so many of the nominations for cinematography, for example, seemed so odd in those days, with oldtimers getting nominations for ordinary-looking pictures and young cinematographers getting ignored for more innovative work. It's also why the nominees for best director seldom exactly duplicate the nominees for best picture.

    I recall being astounded the first time I saw "Dr. Strangelove": They can't end a movie like that, I thought. It was for such audacity that I chose it as the best film of the year. But I know what you mean about admiring a move more than liking it. There are many films I feel that way about.