January 28, 2013

17 My Oscar Picks: 1969-70


The Winner: Midnight Cowboy
My Pick: Midnight Cowboy

The Winner: John Schlesinger, Midnight Cowboy
My Pick: John Schlesinger, Midnight Cowboy

The Winner: John Wayne, True Grit
My Pick: Jon Voight, Midnight Cowboy

The Winner: Maggie Smith, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
My Pick: Jane Fonda, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

The Winner: Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
My Pick: Elliott Gould, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice

The Winner: Goldie Hawn, Cactus Flower
My Pick: Susannah York, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

The Winner: Z (Algeria)
My Pick: Z

I wasn't completely enthusiastic about any of the best picture nominees this year. Z received a number of critics' awards, but I found it so low-key as to be rather dull. This is not the first, and certainly not the last, picture to make me wonder if members of critics' groups respond more to the ideology of a film than to the actual experience of watching it. The Oscar winner for best picture, Midnight Cowboy, is not without its flaws, but it is well directed and compelling, particularly after Joe Buck hits New York. This part of the film actually doesn't amount to much more than half the movie, and the first part of the film seems to me padded with an unnecessarily detailed account of Joe Buck's past. Still, of the nominees, I found it the most acceptable as a best picture winner. Even if the script was off in its overemphasis on the main character's backstory, the flamboyant direction by John Schlesinger was most accomplished and I had no qualms about seconding the Academy's choice of him as best director.

The Academy's choice of John Wayne as best actor for True Grit was panned by observers at the time, but when I saw the movie years after it was released I was impressed by both the movie and Wayne. (It strikes me as a better film than the year's most popular Western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.) Still, I went for Jon Voight's remarkable star-making performance in Midnight Cowboy. The Academy gave its award for best actress to Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Smith is a wonderful actress. But either she or the director decided to exploit her strength at character roles to make her Jean Brodie an eccentric, naively misguided Ms. Chips rather than the manipulative fascist sympathizer she has always seemed to me. (I would love to see what Vanessa Redgrave, who played the part on stage, would have done with the character.) I went instead for another star-making performance by a young actress, Jane Fonda's as the doomed marathon dancer in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

The Oscar for best supporting actor went to Gig Young for They Shoot Horses, Don't They? But I preferred Elliott Gould in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. He came off as the most sympathetic person in the film, his character somewhere midway between the shallow trendies played by Natalie Wood and Robert Culp and his sour, uptight wife played by Dyan Cannon. The Oscar for best supporting actress went to Goldie Hawn for her charming film debut in Cactus Flower, but I opted for Susannah York as another marathon-dance contestant in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Even if I couldn't bring myself to support Z for best picture, I did select it for best foreign language film. It was just the best in a weak field. Some might have gone for the talky soul-searching of Eric Rohmer's My Night at Maude's, but I find this film even duller than Z. Biggest omission: The Wild Bunch for best picture, director (Sam Peckinpah), actor (William Holden), and supporting actor (Robert Ryan).


The Winner: Patton
My Pick: M*A*S*H

The Winner: Franklin J. Shaffner, Patton
My Pick: Robert Altman, M*A*S*H

The Winner: George C. Scott, Patton
My Pick: Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces

The Winner: Glenda Jackson, Women in Love
My Pick: Glenda Jackson, Women in Love

The Winner: John Mills, Ryan's Daughter
My Pick: Chief Dan George, Little Big Man

The Winner: Helen Hayes, Airport
My Pick: Karen Black, Five Easy Pieces

The Winner: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Italy)
My Pick: Tristana (Spain)

This was the year the 1967 revolution in American film finally came to fruition, and the beginning of what just might be the most fecund five-year period in American movies. But you wouldn't know anything much had changed in the industry—or in the country, for that matter—from the Academy Awards for 1970. The Academy's choice for best picture was the flag-waving epic Patton. My choice was another picture about war, M*A*S*H, a film whose attitude toward the subject was as provocative as Patton's was traditional. In style and tone it was like no movie before it. The Academy gave the directing Oscar to Franklin J. Schaffner for his proficient work on Patton. I went instead for Robert Altman, whose innovative direction of M*A*S*H made it one of the most important and influential American films of the 1970s.

George C. Scott got the Oscar for best actor for his florid impersonation of Gen. George S. Patton. In 1961 he declined his nomination for best supporting actor for The Hustler. (He almost certainly would have won; instead George Chakiris won for West Side Story.) This time around, though, he didn't decline the nomination, just the award after he won it. My choice for best actor: Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces, the first of a series of brilliant performances that made him the American actor of the 1970s. Best actress is the one major award where I did agree with the Academy: Glenda Jackson, Women in Love. None of the other nominated performances came anywhere near hers.

This year the Oscars for best supporting actor and actress went to two veteran performers who were likely recognized more for their entire film careers than for the performances that got them nominated. Best supporting actor was John Mills, Ryan's Daughter. That Oscar was a nice sentimental gesture, but for me the best performance of the year in this category was by Chief Dan George, who managed to scoop up most of the critics' awards, in Arthur Penn's comic Western Little Big Man. In another sentimental gesture, Helen Hayes was named best supporting actress for Airport, nearly forty years after being named best actress of 1931/32. My choice was Karen Black as Jack Nicholson's good-hearted but dim girl friend in Five Easy Pieces, with Sally Kellerman's memorable Hot Lips Houlihan in M*A*S*H a very close second. The nominees for best foreign film were another weak lot this year, with the best of them easily Luis Buñuel's Tristana, not quite the equal of his greatest films but nonetheless an excellent film with an eye-opening performance by Catherine Deneuve. Biggest omission: Little Big Man received only a single nomination, for Chief Dan George, with no nominations for best film, director (Arthur Penn), best actor (Dustin Hoffman in a tour de force turn), or best supporting actress (Faye Dunaway, showing an unexpected talent for comedy).

What are your picks for these years? You can search the Academy Awards Database for a complete list of nominees.


  1. I would go along with your choices for 1969 in all categories save Best Supporting Actor, which would remain Gig Young. I find myself so torn between my affection for both "midnight Cowboy" and "They Shoot Horses..." that a sweep for either film wouldn't have been a problem for me.
    1970 is really a lot of fun to ponder as I didn't like many of the films nominated that year beyond "Women in Love" which I would have loved to see take the Oscar for best film and best director.
    I like your picks for all the other categories with perhaps my only deviation being Chabrol's "The Butcher" as my pick for Best Foreign film.
    As the late 60s/70s are my favorite years in motion pictures, I can't tell you what a big kick I've had reading your observations on films you usually don't cover in your blog. I sense that I would enjoy reading your take on many of my favorite films (even if we disagree) because I like how you are able to see both the good and bad in the same film and in actors' performances. Few absolute raves, few absolute pans...make for very thoughtful, insightful observations and commentary. Thanks!

    1. Ken, supporting actor was a tight race in 1969, with Elliot Gould, Gig Young, and Jack Nicholson for "Easy Rider" (Nicholson scooped up most of the critics' awards) all serious contenders, and to my mind any of them a reasonable choice for the Oscar. Young likely had the edge with Academy voters because of his veteran status, with more than 25 years as a reliable supporting actor and a couple of previous nominations.

      I've always been a big admirer of "Women in Love." It got a lot of publicity for its pretty tame "nude" wrestling scene, but it's a really good picture, Ken Russell reining in his penchant for excess to good effect. As well as Glenda Jackson, I thought Alan Bates and Oliver Reed were both excellent, close to their best work for each of them. And the cinematography is gorgeous.

  2. R.D., the 1969 nominees were indeed a pretty tepid bunch. I probably preferred Dustin Hoffman to Jon Voight in MIDNIGHT COWBOY; his role was the showier one and, yes, he overacted at times--but he was still memorable. I rather liked Maggie Smith as Miss Jean Brodie, but understand your very valid point. The only award I feel strongly about is Best Supporting Actor where Jack Nicholson should have won for EASY RIDER. In hindsight, it was the beginning of the Nicholson persona that has graced many films--but it was the central performance in what became an important, anti-Establishment film. As for 1970, I agree with you on all the acting categories. My choice for Best Film,, though, is FIVE EASY PIECES, a complex film that (more or less) popularized the anti-hero that would become prevalent in American films of the early 1970s.

    1. Rick, one of the reasons I took a year off from doing these retrospective Oscar posts is that I felt so ambivalent about all the 1969 best picture nominees. I haven't had this kind of reaction to the nominees since 1956, when I chose "Giant"--flaws and all--as the least offensive choice. "Five Easy Pieces" (it took the NY Film Critics awards for best picture and director, but for some reason not for Jack Nicholson) would be my second choice for 1970. I didn't see it until many years after it was released, but when I did I thought it really did deserve all the critical praise it had received.

  3. R.D., For me, 1969 is a toss-up between "Midnight Cowboy" and "They Shoot Horses." I probably have a more personal affinity for "Horses" because the central character is a woman whose dilemma moved me deeply. I agree with all of your picks, though I do think Maggie Smith was wonderful in "Jean Brodie," a film I'm very fond of - but Jane Fonda would be my pick. I'm curious why "They Shoot Horses" wasn't nominated for Best Picture - good grief, "Hello, Dolly!" managed to get a nomination, as well as "Butch Cassidy." I also would've preferred almost any of the other nominated songs over "Raindrops."

    For 1970, I'm closer to the Academy with the exception of Best Supporting Actress - and there I agree with you ("M.A.S.H." and "Five Easy Pieces" haven't aged well for me).

    1. Eve, I liked Maggie Smith in "Jean Brodie" too, but she IS a rather mannered actress, and I usually find this kind of acting best in smaller doses than lead parts. I like her a great deal in supporting character roles, and if there's a finer character actress working today, I don't know who she is. Why were the acting and direction of "They Shoot Horses" nominated but not the movie for best picture? Too much of a downer when much of the country was experiencing mass depression is my guess!

    2. Well..."Midnight Cowboy" wasn't exactly upbeat, nor was "Anne of the Thousand Days" or "Z." Personally, I think I might've been more depressed by "Hello, Dolly!" had I seen it at the time.

  4. R.D., on the matter of Best Actress of 1969, I am on the other side of the world from the position you have voiced here. Not only was Maggie Smith's turn the best of 1969, but for my money it's one of the greatest in the history of the cinema. I love Vanessa Redgrave, but I don't think she could have equaled Smith on-screen. I know some who did see Redgrave, and they claim Smith was better. Smith did very much appear to me in the film as the 'manipulative fascist sympathizer' that you had hoped for, and director Neame smartly showed her as the fiery and unyielding self-annointed schoolhouse prophet who may have fooled her girls, but certainly not the audience. It was to Smith's supreme credit that she was able to apply her incomparable charisma to win over the audience at least in her electrifying encounters with Celia Johnson. The "I am a Teacher" assault is a master class of acting and could have single-handedly won her the Oscar if it weren't for her delicious mannered acting through the rest of the film. Her big upset win is one of Oscar's finest hours ever.

    I am with you however on Jon Voight, who gave the best performance of 1969, even besting his excellent co-star Dustin Hoffman.

    MIDNIGHT COWBOY is not a perfect film, but I like it a lot, and I would agree again with you that it's the best of the '69 choices, edging out Z.

    Best Director: John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy)

    For supporting my choices are Gig Young and Catherine Burns for LAST SUMMER.
    Celia Johnson was actually the best for her un-nominated performance in THE PRIME OF JEAN BRODIE as the stoic headmistress of Marcia Blaine School.

    Best Foreign Film: Z

    Of the five Best Picture nominees of 1970 I will go with FIVE EASY PIECES.

    Best Director: Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces)

    Best Actor: George C. Scoft, with Melvyn Douglas (I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER) and Jack Nicholson (FIVE EASY PIECES) pushing very close.

    Best Actress: Glenda Jackson (Women in Love)

    Best Supporting Actor: Gene Hackman (I Never Sang For My Father)

    Best Supporing Actress: Karen Black (Five Easy Pieces)

    Best Foreign Film: Tristana

    Another marvelous analysis!!!

    1. Sam, thank you, and thank you for your detailed contribution to the discussion. As I said in another reply, I am a fan of Maggie Smith and have been since the first thing I recall seeing her in, as Desdemona in Olivier's "Othello." My favorite performances by her are still ones like that one which I don't think of as "Maggie Smith" performances. My very favorite is probably in "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne." A couple of years after that she gave another performance I especially like, again for Jack Clayton, in the TV film of Muriel Spark's "Memento Mori" as an atypically sinister character.

  5. R.D.
    So glad you've chosen this era to discuss the Oscar wins.
    I had forgotten that Maggie Smith was winning awards during this time. (So glad to see she's still appearing in such stellar television shows and films as I type this)

    M*A*S*H has my heart and it always will. The film was so damn good and the television show will forever be my favorite show. I still watch the re-runs every few days when I think about it. So glad they'll always be in syndication. With "Patton", I'm reminded that the Academy loves films based on real life events, actual people.

    I did see "Cactus Flower", needless to say I didn't really care for it and I was surprised that Hawn won an Oscar for it.

    I didn't see "Midnight Cowboy" until about five years ago. Hoffman, man he's brilliant! Voight was worthy of the Oscar though. Agree with you there. A tough year with Wayne in the running. I also agree with you on Karen Black.

    Thanks for sharing your picks. Will you be continuing on into the rest of the 70s? If so, I look forward to it.

    1. Page, thanks so much for your comment. I hadn't really thought about it until you brought it up, but "Patton" probably is the beginning of Oscar's love affair with "true" stories featuring real people. This kind of film and performance used to get what I think of as honorary nominations but after the 30s seldom won. But since "Patton" the races are often won by this kind of biographical or "based on real events" kind of movie, especially in the acting categories. I think of another watershed year for this trend as 1980, when Robert De Niro and Sissy Spacek BOTH won acting Oscars for portraying real people. At the time this seemed a fluke to me but has since become a regular occurrence--Gandhi and Salieri in "Amadeus" and so on right up to last year with Meryl Streep winning for her performance as Margaret Thatcher.

      This is the last post I have planned on this subject for this year. Next year I'd like to continue where I left off. The next few years are for me the best years in American film since the heyday of the studios.

  6. R.D., I'm glad you had some positive comments to say about John Wayne's Oscar-winning performance in "True Grit" and didn't feel the need to slam it as a lot of other people do. I think he's great in the film and well deserving of the award.

    For me, the thing about the Oscars is when they get it wrong (and we all have instances where they think they get it wrong) they rarely give a prize for an undeserving performance or movie. (Again, there are exceptions). I love Altman's "MASH" and would have loved to have seen it get the top prize, but "Patton" is such a great movie too, that I can't get that upset. Yet, I think that "Patton" is a great film mainly because of Scott's performance and the great Jerry Goldsmith score, while "MASH" is a great film all around.

    (For me, the greatest Oscar boo boo of the year was Francis Lai's treacly score for "Love Story" winning over Goldsmith's for "Patton.")

    I'll never knock a great film because it won an Oscar over a perceived favorite.

    I guess what I mean is, no need to denigrate, say, "How Green Was My Valley" because it lost to "Citizen Kane."

    I share your thoughts on "The Wild Bunch" being excluded from the race, and I really, really need to see "Women in Love" sometime.

    Excuse the rambling.

    1. Kevin, for years I heard how mediocre the John Wayne version of "True Grit" was and how unfair that John Wayne won an Oscar for it. But when I finally saw it just a few years ago, I found I really liked it and thought it was one of Wayne's best later performances. There was no dishonor in the Academy giving him the Oscar, nor much surprise either, since they've always preferred established actors over unproven newcomers. Strangely, this doesn't seem to apply nearly so much to actresses, where they often choose youth over experience.

      I have to say I agree with you about how the Academy seldom makes an unreasonable choice. If not my own picks, the winners they choose are usually reasonable alternatives with clear merit. This seems especially so in the acting categories. More so than in the choices for best picture, which as you've pointed out before serve most accurately as a gauge of the mood of Academy voters at the time. For example, the awards for 1970 seemed to affirm tradition over innovation, which suggests the insecurity voters felt about the new directions movies were going in at the time.

  7. R.D., again I haven't seen as many movies from these years as I should have done, and some of those you mention I only saw long ago and don't remember very well. However, I do love both 'Midnight Cowboy' and 'MASH'. Both of these of course are 'buddy' movies, as with 'Butch Cassidy', which is a lifelong favourite of mine - I grew up on TV westerns like 'Alias Smith and Jones', which was obviously heavily modelled on the film, and I find that series, now out on DVD, has held up very well.

    I thought that most of 'They Shoot Horses' was very good but it went over the top towards the end. Anyway, your posting is a pointer to several films that I must finally catch up with!

    1. Judy, I never saw "Alias Smith and Jones" but do know that the lead actors had a strong resemblance to Paul Newman and Robert Redford. "They Shoot Horses" does have more than its share of melodrama but also has some of the best performances of the year. And it's the film that first got Jane Fonda taken seriously as an actress. For me she's THE American actress of the 70s the way Jack Nicholson is THE American actor of the 70s.

  8. R.D.,

    I am 99% in agreement with your picks for 1969 and 100% in 1970. MIDNIGHT COWBOY has shown some ware, but it remains an excellent ground breaking film with two great performances. Other than the sympathy vote, I don't understand Wayne winning. His best performance where he really acted was in Ford’s THE SEARCHERS. I know I have said this before; Wayne is more movie star than an actor. He plays John Wayne and nobody does it better, but as an actor he was limited. We must be able to separate screen charisma from acting talent. Wayne has screen charisma, some people like Cagney and Bogart had both talent and charisma, others like Olivier had the acting talent back lacked the screen charisma. Getting off track here, sorry. Jane Fonda was absolutely breathtaking in THEY SHOOT HORSES...a cynical, downbeat performance that stays with you long after you finished watching. Gig Young was a bit too showy for my taste and I admittedly always liked Elliott Gould's quirkiness as an actor. As you say, he is the most sympathetic character in the film. For Best Supporting Actress I would go with Catherine Burns for LAST SUMMER, she was simply superb. Hawn as you mention is charming in CACTUS FLOWER but I did not see anything worthy of winning the Oscar.

    MASH was revolutionary at the time and possibly Hollywood was not ready for it and went with the more patriotic and traditional PATTON. They gave the Oscar in '69 to MIDNIGHT COWBOY so maybe it was a time for the conservative wing of the Academy to fight back. Altman definitely should have won Best Director. Schaffner was workman like but nothing special. There was nothing wrong with Scott's performance in PATTON, it was powerful to say the least, but again this seemed like a step backward. Nicholson should have won. In the Supporting Actress category, like you, I would go with Karen Black. Sally Kellerman would be a close second. Helen Hayes was fine but the role was nothing special.

    1. John, it's great to read your thoughts on these years. Far from going off-track in your discussion about the three types of screen actors (with some great examples that show exactly what you're getting at), I thought it was an insightful analysis of the way talent/charisma work on the audience. It sounds to me like the germ of a post, one I hope you pursue sometime. Your classification is one I'll be thinking about in the future as I watch some of my favorite actors. The studios really seemed to know how to exploit the charismatic qualities of their stars, even if it did sometimes straitjacket those stars into typecasting.