Becket (1964)

becket

Starring: Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole,  Donald Wolfit, David Weston, John Gielgud, Martita Hunt, Pamela Brown

Director: Peter Glenville

Summary: England’s King Henry II appoints his best friend Archbishop of Canterbury then turns on him

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Burton), Actor (O’Toole), Supporting Actor (Gielgud), Adapted Screenplay*, Original Score, Sound Mixing, Color Art Direction, Color Cinematography, Color Costume Design, Film Editing

Positives

-O’Toole is wonderful as Henry II-he’s stagy and and his performance is big, but he reins it in enough that he doesn’t come off as a big ham, just really entertaining. Burton is good as well in the less showy part of Thomas Becket-he’s still not going to emote much (or emote way too much, he’s like a rich-man’s William Shatner), but he still gets the warmth across he needs to in the first half and his character should be a stalwart in the second half; it’s just funny that he keeps getting very religious parts (this and The Robe) considering he was an Atheist.

-You really do get a good feel for the characters and their dilemma, that they had a genuine friendship-not the most conventional, but Henry didn’t have anyone else to confide in/willing to put up with him and and Becket was a guy who lacked self-respect but liked hanging out as a drinking buddy with Henry. They set it up decently enough, but it’s the performances that make you buy into their friendship, which if you didn’t would make the rest of the movie fall apart. It was an interesting choice to 100% play Henry as a spurned lover, even if they never outright say they had a physical relationship (as they couldn’t in a movie at the time). The movie is basically an examination of these two characters and one of them learning to become emotionally invested in something and the other feeling betrayed by the one person he actually ever liked, and as that it works really well.

-Considering the type of movie it is, the dialogue is really good. They stayed away from “Ye Old English” as much as possible, and the the movie is full of great lines that stuck out to me. Examples: “One must never drive one’s enemy to despair; it makes him strong. Gentleness is better politics, it saps virility. A good occupational force must never crush. It must corrupt”; “Have you any idea how much trouble it took to make you a noble?” “I think so; I recall you pointed a finger and said ‘Thomas Becket, you are a noble.’ The queen and your mother became very agitated.”

Negatives

-The section of the story where Becket travels seeking (and eventually getting) the Pope’s audience falls off compared to the rest of the movie, as this is a personal story between the two characters, and here only Becket is involved. In fact, anything just involving Becket is much weaker than Henry & Becket and just Henry, but this part stuck out in particular.

Other Stuff

-Oddly enough, this is the first of four 1960s Best Picture nominees about Henry II or Henry VIII (Becket, A Man for All Seasons, A Lion in Winter and Anne of a Thousand Days).

-John Gielgud couldn’t have been on screen for more than 6 minutes, but got a nomination because he’s John Gielgud. I liked him enough, but he didn’t deserve it.

Overall

A great historical drama, due to the performances and the wonderful character dynamics involved.

Rating: A-

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

strangelove

Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, Peter Bull,James Earl Jones (in his film debut)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Summary: A mad U.S. general orders an air strike against the Soviet Union

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Sellers), Adapted Screenplay

Positives

It’s one of the best black comedies of all-time for a number of reasons. First, black comedies are always a hard thing to get right, because it’s so easy to go overboard in either direction, either as a movie that’s too silly to be horrifying or too horrifying to be funny-somehow, the movie walks that thin line extremely well and the tone works completely. We really only have two off-the-wall characters (Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove and Scott’s Buck Turgidson), with the other characters playing it relatively straight, but saying humorous dialogue. Second, it’s a brilliant satire of military thinking, how arms races are basically dick measuring contests and the idea that there can ever be a winner in a nuclear war. Even though it’s firmly set in the Cold War (around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis), it’s still relevant: we still have nuclear and hydrogen bombs and a lot of the same thinking about war still exists. Finally, all the performances are excellent all-around, with my favorites being Sellers playing three characters (he was originally also going to play the Slim Pickens character but hurt his ankle) all completely different and all memorable, Scott as an over-the-top general (which he was tricked into playing by Kubrick who told him they were only practice, “silly” takes) and one of the major Oscar omissions of all-time, probably due to his refusal of his nomination for The Hustler in 1961 and vocal distaste for awards, and finally Wynn who isn’t in a lot of scenes but is perfect as a deadpan soldier towards the end.

-It has one of my favorite closing scenes ever, and is almost certainly an inspiration for the Fallout games.

Negatives

-The only significant complaint I have is that there are probably too many cockpit scenes which sometimes get redundant and are the least interesting part of the movie by far.

Overall

I watched it in High School and liked it, and by now I love it. Excellent satire on the Cold War arms race that has aged well due to its biting humor and continued relevancy even in changed times.

Rating: A

Mary Poppins (1964)

poppins

Starring: Julie Andrews (in her film debut), Dick Van Dyke, Karen Dotrice, Matthew Garber, David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns, Hermione Baddeley, Ed Wynn, Reginald Owen

Director: Robert Stevenson

Summary: A magic nanny comes to work for a cold banker’s unhappy family

Other Nominations: Director, Actress (Andrews)*, Adapted Screenplay, Original Song (“Chim Chim Cher-ee”)*, Original Score*, Adapted/Treatment Score, Sound Mixing, Color Art Direction, Color Cinematography, Color Costume Design, Film Editing*, Visual Effects*

Positives

-Julie Andrews always great to see, and is easily one of the best musical actresses ever, probably the best. What makes her so good here is her playing the wackiness going on completely straight, with her insistence that nothing unusual is going on being the main source of humor for me. She also has this interesting combination of warmth and intimidation-she’s nice, but you’d better listen to Mary Poppins or else things are going to go down-that’s hard to pull off, but she does. I’m surprised that she won Best Actress though, considering the movie and that she isn’t as big a part of the movie as you would expect, and a lot of the time she’s either out of it entirely or standing by watching things happen around her. My guess is that the universal outrage at her being snubbed for Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (which she had become famous for on Broadway) led to so much sympathy in her direction that she won Best Actress over a relatively weak field. I also really liked Tomlinson as Mr. Banks, who’s really the soul of the movie as he’s the character who actually has an arc and changes over the course of the movie and is essentially its focus.

-Even if there’s not enough focus on it in my opinion, the story that is there is simple but charming.

-Effects are cheap and cheesy for today’s standards, but have still have a lot of charm, especially the stop-motion effects which are always fun to see.

-Songs on the whole are solid, with “Spoonful of Sugar” being my favorite.

Negatives

-My biggest problem is that it’s the kind of musical that’s plot starts and stops constantly-there are long stretches where we get musical numbers that are just there to be there and don’t move anything forward which is something I’ve never liked (some of the Gene Kelly musicals have the same problem, especially Anchors Aweigh). The main examples being the animated sequence that goes on for ages, and the numbers “Love to Laugh” and “Step in Time”. 2 hours, 21 minutes is long for a kids musical like this, and this is the main culprit.

-Dick Van Dyke’s cockney accent is the stuff of legends in a bad way, known as one of the worst accents in movie history. I would agree, but even beyond that, I didn’t like his performance overall either, and he mostly irritated me (at least in his main role)

Overall

A solid musical with a few really good numbers and the incomparable Julie Andrews as the title character, but the long stretches where they just show off big numbers that grind the story to a halt for 10 minutes at a time wore thin for me.

Rating: B-

*My Fair Lady (1964)*

lady

Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Stanley Holloway, Mona Washbourne, Jeremy Brett, Gladys Cooper

Director: George Cukor

Summary: A phonetics instructor bets that he can pass a street urchin off as a lady

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Harrison)*, Supporting Actor (Holloway), Supporting Actress (Cooper), Adapted Screenplay, Adapted/Treatment Score*, Sound Mixing*, Color Art Direction*, Color Cinematography*, Color Costume Design*, Film Editing

Positives

-Hepburn and Harrison are both great, even if casting Hepburn as an ugly duckling feels silly considering she’s Audrey freakin’ Hepburn. They have a lot of chemistry together-not necessarily romantic, but they’re a fun pair and match up well with each other through all the different stages of their characters. Hepburn was a very obvious (and purposeful) snub for an Oscar nomination that happened for two reasons: 1) she was picked instead of Julie Andrews (yes, I am really not over exaggerating how big a deal this was within the industry and the public at the time) and 2) she didn’t sing most of her songs (only about 10% is her in the movie) and was overdubbed by Marni Nixon who made a career out of this. They released the tapes of what Hepburn sounded like in 1994, and having heard her myself, she’s perfectly fine and they should have used it-would have avoided a lot of controversy and it’s not like Harrison’s really signing at all either.

-The production design (sets costumes, overall look) is very well-done and fits the tone of this movie, even if I have problems with it for other reasons and it’s all clearly done on soundstages.

-The songs all either develop characters or move story along which is good even if the musical style isn’t my favorite.

Negatives

-I think the shiny technicolor, lavish sets and costumes and upbeat musical numbers detract from the story, which really is about some miserable, ugly people (Henry Higgins and Alfred Doolittle) and Eliza Doolittle who is trying to become her own woman. The 1938 version was more stark in tone and style, fully reveling in how big of a hypocrite Higgins was and how much of a lowlife Mr. Doolittle was, and was not ornately decorated or costumed-all of which serves the source material a lot better than a big lavish musical with big standard 50’s-60’s musical numbers.

-172 minutes is long for any movie, much less a musical. This was required in order to keep every musical number from the play, but some of them should have been excised or shortened (the most obvious examples to me are the reprises of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” & “On the Street Where You Live” and “Ascot Gavotte”).

Overall

I can see the appeal, but this wasn’t one of my favorite musicals despite the strong lead performances-I think the whole presentation and it being a classic-style musical detracts from the story and the tone that I liked so much in the 1938 version.

Rating: B-

Zorba the Greek (1964)

zorba

Starring: Alan Bates, Anthony Quinn, Lila Kedrova, Irene Papas

Director: Michael Cacoyannis

Summary: An amoral Greek peasant teaches a British student the meaning of life

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Quinn), Supporting Actress (Kedrova)*, Adapted Screenplay, B&W Art Direction*, B&W Cinematography*

Positives

-Quinn’s energy is pretty infectious, yet he has some real pathos and is clearly the best thing this movie has going for it. Kedrova also puts in a good performance playing a woman past her prime who is desperate for affection.

-I like the score a lot, it’s lively and very traditional and sets the mood for a movie set in Greece really well.

-The Cinematography and editing are dynamic for the time and the movie feels very European on this basis, stylistically this is not something Hollywood was doing a whole lot of yet and both do a great job of evoking certain emotions during key scenes.

Negatives

-This is a very leisurely film for the first two hours, and then last hour feels very scattered trying to wrap up three different plots and skipping over large chunks of time with no transition between events. It also takes one hell of a dark turn towards the end and the villagers start acting like a pack of rabid dogs without much leading up to it. All of this does plays into the film’s theme of the randomness of life and living life with zest for that reason, but from a storytelling standpoint it isn’t appealing and doesn’t excuse total character changes out of nowhere.

-Bates’ character is a dead fish (intentionally) and any scenes with just him and not Quinn aren’t that great. You can make an intentionally not very interesting character engaging in some way (example: Jack Lemmon in The Apartment), but Bates isn’t good enough to get above his character just being boring and lifeless with nothing else to it.

Overall

Quinn’s performance and some of the presentation aspects make up for some of this movie’s structural defects, but ultimately this is a flawed movie that’s just alright.

Overall: C+

1964 in Review

Other Notable Films from 1964

A Hard Day’s Night: The Beatles did the only thing that could have made them even bigger than they were at the time: make a massively successful movie. Obviously the soundtrack couldn’t be beat, but it’s also a very funny and clever look at the band and their celebrity at the time.

Goldfinger: Many consider it the greatest Bond film of all-time, and while I wouldn’t completely agree (Goldeneye and Skyfall are on equal footing for me), it’s the definitive Connery Bond movie, with the Aston Martin, the legendary henchman Oddjob, the theme by Shirley Bassey, the first ridiculously named Bond Girl Pussy Galore, Gert Frobe who got cast because his agent said he could speak English, when in fact he couldn’t and they dubbed his voice (something most people don’t realize), and tons of gadgets. Good times.

A Fistful of Dollars: The first entry in Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy which made Clint Eastwood a star and led to some of the best Westerns ever made; sadly, this is not really one of them-of the four major Westerns Leone did, this is the only one that doesn’t do much for me. Nevertheless, it introduced “The Man With No Name” and everybody went on to bigger and better things.

The Pawnbroker: This film was notable for two reasons besides it being a very good movie: 1) it was the first American movie about a holocaust survivor, and 2) it was the first movie approved under the code that had bare breasts in it, under a “special exception” that of course led to others wanting the same and the end of the code altogether. In the National Film Registry.

The Last Man on Earth: This Vincent Price movie was the first (and best) of the adaptations of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (the others: The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston and I Am Legend (2007) with Will Smith). It was made on the cheap in Italy, but it just adds to the feel of its totally desolate post-human landscape. Vincent Price gives what is probably his best dramatic performance (along with Witchfinder General), especially considering he’s the only person on screen for most of the film.

Fail Safe: In 1964, we got two movies about a potential nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union involving a bomber heading towards the USSR that everybody is trying to stop. This one, unlike Dr. Strangelove, is not satirical and is played completely straight, with great performances from Henry Fonda as the President (a role he seems natural for) and Walter Matthau.

Seven Up!: The first part of one of the great documentary series of all-time that is still going on today. The first edition covers a variety of seven year old kids from different backgrounds in England with the assumption that their class at birth will determine their future; the subsequent entries (the last of which was 56 Up in 2012) checks in with the same people every seven years to see where their lives have progressed since the last entry. There’s never been anything else like it and it’s worth a look if you haven’t seen it.

Woman in the Dunes: One of the only foreign language films to get a Best Director nomination and the only one for a Japanese film, it’s a haunting, jarring avant-garde movie about a man who is abducted by a group of villagers who force him to live in a sand pit with a woman until he gets her pregnant.

1964 Nominees in Review

Dr. Strangelove: A

Becket: A-

Mary Poppins: B-

My Fair Lady: B- (Won Best Picture)

Zorba the Greek: C+

I’m not a fan of musicals really, so naturally I would have chosen a different Best Picture winner, but this is a good year and a much better one than 1963. Credit to the Academy for nominating Dr. Strangelove, considering how much it sticks out for its time and how bold of satire it was in that political climate. Furthermore, there’s not any obvious snubs here which is unusual, especially from this time period.

For 1965: The two films that turned Julie Christie into a superstar in a period of less than 6 months; Vivien Leigh’s final film; The biggest film of the 60s that adjusted for inflation is the 3rd highest grossing movie ever; and a movie featuring two future Presidents of the Screen Actors Guild.