The Oscars in Retrospect: 1964 Best Picture


Inspired by my Best Animated Feature project, I have decided to occasionally do these kinds of things for the Best Picture category, and maybe a few others. I actually came up with this idea incidentally while rewatching Mary Poppins. I remembered how it was nominated for Best Picture (First nomination for the Disney Studios in the category), and I decided to look up the rest of the nominees to see if they were interesting enough to watch. I guess they did. 

This is now where I usually would talk about other films in contention, but I’m not familiar with a lot of them. I did see that Vittorio De Sica had two films in contention, with Marriage Italian Style being nominated for Sophia Loren’s performance, and Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow actually winning Best Foreign Language Film. Also nominated in the latter category was The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, my favorite film of all time. That film wouldn’t be eligible for other awards until the following  year, where it went on to earn four more nominations: Best Original Screenplay, and three in different music categories for Michel Legrand’s lengendary score and songs (naturally it went home empty handed).

Other notable nominees included The Unsinkable Molly Brown (6 nods, including Best Actress for Debbie Reynolds), A Hard Day’s Night (2 nods, including Best Original Screenplay), Goldfinger (Best Sound Effects), The Pink Panther (Best Original Score), and Woman in the Dunes (Best Foreign Language Film).

The Contenders

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Becket (Peter Glenville)

The opening of Becket was a bit startling, not necessarily because of what happens, but because of what I was expecting. The film is based on a play which was inspired by real controversial relationship between King Henry II of England and his friend Thomas Becket, thus I expected deadly serious stuff. Although it ultimately does get there, the film starts out with Peter O’Toole as the king chewing the scenery to pieces. This leads to the flashback that makes up the rest of the film, and it begins with a scene that looks straight out of a 1960s sex farce. The first act features more scenes like this that although they may be historically accurate, due to the way they were filmed seem completely out of place.

But once this passes and we get to what makes the meaty conflict of the film. Once Becket (Richard Burton) becomes the Archbishop of the Church of England and we see the relationship between him and the king begin to crumble, I couldn’t help but get wrapped up in the drama. In the end though, I couldn’t help but feel like the film was just good as its origins as a play hold it back. Because of its source material, a lot of the film is driven by dialogue and monologues. As well-written as they are, after a while it all becomes tiresome. Also, given its origins, there’s not much they could do with the settings of the story. I tried not to bold it against the film, but a lot of the time it ends up feeling claustrophobic and stuffy, which not always the desired effect.

With that said, there’s a great deal of greatness within the film. Although I may not necessarily think that the film deserved to be nominated for Best Picture, Director, or Screenplay (which it actually won), it most definitely deserved the rest of its nominations, mainly the twin nominations for O’Toole and Burton for Best Actor. O’Toole’s scenery chewing may be off-putting at first mainly because the character was not much different from the actor in some aspects, but once you get to the nitty-gritty and you see how perfectly he brings the struggle between the King’s love, hatred, and jealousy towards Becket, his works becomes a sight to behold. But for my money, Burton’s work is what makes the film. His character goes through the biggest transformation in the film, from an ambitious, but cold-hearted outcast to a man who found something to live for after being forced to go on a path he never would have gone on by himself. He portrays this transformation with such power and with very little histrionics that I couldn’t help but be in awe. These two performances alone made the experience worthwhile.
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Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick)

I watched Dr. Strangelove for the first time many years ago just as I was starting to get into films because whenever you look up lists of the greatest films of all time, it’s always there. I loved it back then because really, how could anyone not. But watching it now, for the first time, now that my mind has expanded in regards not only to what makes great cinema, but also in regards to why the world we live in is as messed up as it is, it made me appreciate it so much more.

What can I say that hasn’t already been said about this masterpiece? Nothing really. The film is indeed a hilarious and damning satire of American politics and xenophobia disguised as patriotism. It does indeed have perfect performances from the entire cast, particularly Peter Sellers in one of the greatest examples of the craft of acting. It is indeed a great example of every cinematic craft, from the art direction, to the costumes, and the makeup. Finally, it is indeed brought together beautifully by Stanley Kubrick to create one of the most timeless pieces of art.

As fun as it is to watch the political buffoons that make up the characters in the movie, it makes me scared that there really is a politician or Army man that really wants to do what General Ripper does here for a false sense of patriotism and fear of anything that is not deemed “American.”Hell, almost every day in the news we see people as clueless as Ripper and General Turgidson being seen as wise saviors and heroes on FOX News and other conservative “news” organizations. It’s just scary that the film is as relevant as ever today.

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Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson)

It’s hard to grow up in a country that has any semblance of civilization and not at least knowing of the existence of Mary Poppins, whether because of the literary influence of P.L. Travers’s novels or, most likely, Disney’s musical adaptation.For example, I lived my childhood in Mexico and didn’t even watch it for the first time until about two or three years ago, and since I was little I had heard about the flying nanny and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Watching it, even if you don’t fall head-over-heels for it, it’s easy to see this film had the impact that it had and why it is beloved around the world.

The film overall is not quite practically perfect in every way mainly because the two big musical sequences (the animated one and the one with the chimney sweeps) go on for too long, as impressive and important as they may be. But then that’s pretty much that’s wrong with it. Visually, it’s astounding in every level, from the dreamy art direction in the “real world,” to the gorgeous cinematography, and the beautifully designed animated sequence. There’s the music of course, which I don’t need to praise as it’s obvious why it’s still remembered fondly.

And there’s also the lovely performances from everyone, even Dick Van Dyke with his dreadful accent. But the movie obviously belongs to Julie Andrews in her breakout role as the title character. She is so cute and has so much charm but also manages to give an edge to the character that lets her be believable in the moments where she is supposed to be more stern. It’s one of those few times when you can say that she deserved to win the Oscar (though perhaps the controversy over her not being cast in My Fair Lady despite originating the role on Broadway helped a bit).

This would have been for naught in the end if all these great things didn’t have a great story to serve. At first it might seem that the film is about Mary taking the kids on adventures, but when we get to the end and see the real purpose behind her actions (which aren’t, surprisingly, blatantly explained), I couldn’t help but shed a few tears. How all the individual elements serve the story is the reason why this became a huge box office hit, managed to get 12 Oscar nominations, and has become a true classic that continues to charm families 50 years since it’s release.
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Zorba the Greek (Michael Cacoyannis)

Pretty much every marketing image related to Zorba the Greek, whether it is the original poster or the Blu-ray cover made me believe that the movie would be a light drama about a boring English guy finding his groove thanks to Greek guy with a bigger-than-life personality. Even the synopsis on the back cover of the Blu-ray boils down to it being about a guy who learns that all of the problems in the world can go away through the magic of dance. That is all pure trickery.

The film starts out well enough, with the seemingly uptight Basil (Alan Bates) on his way to Crete, Greece to take care of some land he owns. Then Zorba (Anthony Quinn), who has a big personality shows up and promises to show him the true way of Greek life. Then they get to Crete and they are welcomed as if they were gods, but this way fine for me considering that there are plenty of great movies where this happens.

Then things start going south. We get introduced to Madame Hortense (Lila Kedrova), who plays a stereotypical tragic French expatriate who longs for her youth. Then we get introduced to the Widow (Irene Papas), who apparently has no name and every man lusts after her, especially a particular young man. But she only has eyes for Basil. But again, nothing out of the ordinary as there’s time for these characters to develop.

But things don’t get better after this. Zorba’s personality gets worse and worse to the point where he ends up being detestable. Basil doesn’t grow and pretty much remains a shy coward to the end.

The worst thing is how much this film hates women. Madame Hortense devolves from being a colorful side character to being obsessed with Zorba to the point of madness. And the Widow gets the worst treatment. After Basil finally gets together with her, the news spread around the town. This causes the young man who was obsessed with her to kill himself. What happens next? The Widow is blamed and she gets stoned by basically the entire town and then her throat is slashed. Did Basil do anything about it? No, he just hid among the crown. And then the story simply moves on as if nothing happened. And the other women in the town are treated as materialistic leeches.

Zorba the Greek, beautiful-looking though it is (it deserved its wins for Best Black & White Cinematography and Art Direction), it’s a despicable film. It’s one of the lowest points for the Academy, which is saying something.

The Winner

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My Fair Lady (George Cukor)

I honestly wish I had more to say about My Fair Lady than I actually do. I sat there for it’s three hour running time, and it was good. And it’s easy to see why Oscar voters favored it over the other nominees. There’s nothing political about it and the story is simple and to the point. The production values are superb, but there’s nothing particularly challenging about the film making. The performances are generally excellent. Plus, it was based on a relatively new Broadway smash hit. In the end though, I was kind of tired by the length of the film, and it ended on a dreadful note, and the most enthusiastic things I could say about it was “That was good.”

Did the Right One Win? If not, what should have won? No. Like I said, it’s easy to see why My Fair Lady won since it was the most basically pleasant. But there’s a reason why Dr. Strangelove is the most revered film of this lot, and I wish the voters had been wise to appreciate it then as much as we do today. I would have also been alright with Mary Poppins and its inventiveness winning.


Best Director

  • Peter Glenville, Becket
  • Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
  • Robert Stevenson, Mary Poppins
  • George Cukor, My Fair Lady (Winner)
  • Michael Cocoyannis, Zorba the Greek

Did the Right One Win? If not, who should have won? It’s hard to argue against this considering Cukor did the best he could with the mediocre source material and it looks amazing. However, seeing how Stanley Kubrick was nominated for one of his masterpieces, no the right person didn’t win.

Best Actor

  • Richard Burton, Becket
  • Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady (Winner)
  • Peter O’Toole, Becket
  • Anthony Quinn, Zorba the Greek
  • Peter Sellers,  Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Did the Right One Win? If not, what should have won? Harrison is very good in the least challenging role in this group, so his work is the most agreeable and that’s probably why he won (props for doing his singing live on set though). But Sellers, Burton, and O’Toole are on another level and its shame none of them won.

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium

  • Becket (Winner)
  • Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
  • Mary Poppins
  • My Fair Lady
  • Zorba the Greek

Did the Right One Win? If not, what should have won? I made myself pretty clear in my Becket review, I think. Dr. Strangelove should have easily won.

Up Next: It might take me a while to get around to watching them all, but I think I’ll do 1939 next. I’ve struggled for years to build up the energy to watch Gone With the Wind in one sitting, so I don’t know when it will be posted.


5 thoughts on “The Oscars in Retrospect: 1964 Best Picture

  1. I really like these posts and excited to see what you do in the future. I hadn’t heard of Zorba or Beckett. I love My Fair Lady (I’m Audrey Hepburn nut) and think the songs are divine. I also think costumes are superb in that movie. Rex Harrison did all his singing live because it is that talking singing not in a studio.
    That said I also love Mary Poppins and find it actually quite moving when you think of the Mr Banks character and his character arc. When he is going to lose his job and see’s the Birdlady it’s perfection. I also like how Mary is a complex character. She’s not bubbly and happy all the time but can get frustrated and be bossy.
    Dr Strangelove is also brilliantly funny and makes you think. It’s so unique and one of my favorite Kubrick films.
    That’s the problem with the Oscars is the films are apples and oranges. How do you decide what is best when they are all so different? It ends up being popularity contest. But that said still interesting time capsule to look back on

    • The time capsule aspect is why I like the Oscars. Yes, every year they make bad decision that look silly in retrospect (does anyone even talk about The King’s Speech, The Artist, or Argo anymore), and they are pointless in the grand scheme of things, but it’s great to have a record of what the American movie industry fell in love with on a certain year, for better or worse.

      • Ha you actually picked 3 I agree with the academy on! I personally think Birdman, Shakespeare in Love, and American Beauty will go down as incredibly forgettable.

      • Shakespeare has already stood the test of time and is seen as an agreeable alternative, but time has proven that neither that or Saving Private Ryan were the best contenders, but The Thin Red Line was the true best film of the year.

        As for American Beauty, it’s still a gateway for cinema for many, but the critical tide has changed, with many seeing it as extremely dated and corny, but never forgettable. Now The Insider is seen as the best film among the nominees.

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