50 Years Ago This Week – The 37th Academy Awards

The Old Hollywood was running out of ideas but was still firmly in control at the thirty-seventh Academy Awards, hosted by establishment stalwart Bob Hope on April 5, 1965.  The ambitious, subversive and spectacular Dr. Strangelove actually managed to nab a few high profile nominations, but the film, along with director Stanley Kubrick and star Peter Sellers, was steamrolled by My Fair Lady, which picked up a total of eight Oscars.  Strangelove, now recognized as a landmark in American cinema, dusted up a small controversy at the time.  A hilarious but surgically incisive take-down of anti-communist hysteria in the U.S. (the film would simply not have been permissible in the late 1950s), it was also chastised by Cold War liberals for suggesting similarities between America and the Soviet Union.  Bosley Crowther, the progressive guardian-of-good-taste at The New York Times, thought Strangelove “brilliant and amusing” but “grave and dangerous” as well, disturbingly suggestive “of discredit and even contempt for our entire defense establishment.”

In April 1965—only a month after the first 3,500 U.S. ground troops were dispatched to Vietnam—skepticism about the American military was not yet respectable.  Similarly shut out by the Academy were John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May (the Joint Chiefs plot to overthrow a liberal American President, with Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglass, and a screenplay by Rod Serling), and Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe (Strangelove, without the laughs, as President Henry Fonda faces some hard choices in the wake of an unauthorized American nuclear strike).  Seven Days now takes its place in the midst of a remarkable run of films directed by Frankenheimer that would point towards the New Hollywood, including The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds; Lumet would go on to direct Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network, in a remarkable half-century of filmmaking that stretched from Twelve Angry Men to Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

But in 1965, Strangelove, Seven Days and Fail Safe were not up to the Academy’s standards set by My Fair Lady, Zorba the Greek and Mary Poppins (which led all comers with 13 nominations).  In 1966 The Sound of Music would take home the top prize, followed by A Man for All Seasons the year after.  The New Hollywood would break through at the 1968 ceremonies (postponed for two days after the assassination of Martin Luther King), when Mike Nichols won best director for The Graduate.  Two years later Midnight Cowboy won for best picture, and Old Hollywood was not amused. “At a time when our moral values need to be restated and reaffirmed,” Bob Hope told the viewers at home, “I would personally like to see this industry lead the American people back to their true heritage of freedom – but freedom with honor and decency and a real respect for law and order and the things that made this country great.”