It’s time for the Academy Awards once again. This year’s crop of nominated films is an eclectic bunch consisting of historical drama, fantasy, forbidden love and a large dose of social commentary. Much the same can be said of the Academy Awards of fifty years ago. The awards ceremony in 1968 honored the stellar films and performances from movies released in 1967. While movies then and now reflect the times, the 40th annual Academy Awards, scheduled for Monday, April 8, 1968, were postponed for two days due to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4.
The nominees for Best Picture were:
Bonnie and Clyde
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
In Cold Blood
In the Heat of the Night
The irony of the situation was that two of the films — now ground-breaking classics — dealt with racial prejudice and were made just three years after the enacting of Civil Rights legislation. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner told the story of a white woman bringing her African-American fiancé home to meet her parents. This year’s nominee, Get Out, tells a similar story. While both were billed as comedy/dramas, both deal with the same subject fifty years apart.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner starred Sydney Poitier, who was the first African-American Oscar winner in 1964 (for his performance in Lilies of the Field). The movie was directed by Stanley Kramer, and starred (in addition to Poitier), Spencer Tracy (in his last film role), Katharine Hepburn and her daughter, Katharine Houghton, as Poitier’s love interest. The film was released just six months after the historic Loving V. Virginia decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that ruled that the states that banned marriage between individuals of different races was a constitutional violation of the 14th Amendment. Up to that point, interracial marriage remained illegal in 17 states.
Likewise, In the Heat of the Night took the issue of racial prejudice head-on. Sydney Poitier starred in this picture (in two nominated films in the same year!) with Rod Steiger. Poitier played the role of a Philadelphia police detective, who, while waiting for a train in Mississippi, is mistakenly arrested for the murder of a wealthy Chicago businessman. During his interrogation, Poitier reveals to Police Chief Rod Steiger that he is a detective. When Steiger calls his captain for verification, the Philadelphia captain tells Steiger that Poitier is his best detective, and suggests he keep him there to assist in the murder investigation. The town and Police Chief fiercely distrust strangers, and the tension between the characters is what one might expect from a Southern town in that time. But Poitier demands respect when at one point he utters the now-famous phrase, “They call me Mister Tibbs!” By the end of the film, Steiger’s character has grown to respect Poitier’s abilities in solving the case.
A glance through the nominees in the acting, cinematography and costuming categories show the depth of talent displayed in the movies released in 1967. Other than the Best Picture nominees, there was Best Supporting Actor George Kennedy for Cool Hand Luke; Art Direction and costuming awards went to John Truscott for Camelot, plus Set Direction along with Edward Carrere and John Brown; Best Original Musical Score went to Elmer Bernstein for Thoroughly Modern Millie and the Best Directing Oscar went to Mike Nichols for The Graduate.
Mister Boomer must confess that he only saw two of the films nominated in various categories at the movies fifty years ago: In the Heat of the Night and Cool Hand Luke. As near as Mister B can recall, he saw them at a drive-in with his dad, sister and brother. When his mother had her women’s card night, his dad took the kids to the drive-in to get them out of the house. Mister B saw many of the classic movies of the ’60s this way. As a young teen, Cool Hand Luke in particular made quite an impression on Mister B; he logs it as one of his all-time favorite movies.
At various times in subsequent years, Mister Boomer has seen all of the films on TV that were nominated in the most popular categories fifty years ago. He recalls watching Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Bonnie and Clyde, Camelot and The Graduate in particular. This year there are nine films nominated for Best Picture; in 1968, there were six. Then as now, they are filled with memorable lines of dialogue from quotable scripts, unforgettable scenes and performances, and musical classics that are valued today and will be fifty years from now.
Did you go to the movies to see any of the best pictures featured at the 1968 Academy Awards, boomers?