1968 – Romeo and Juliet

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Romeo and Juliet – 1968

I’ll start off by saying that this was, bar-none, a vastly improved telling of Shakespeare’s play about the star-crossed lovers than the previous version that was nominated for Best Picture in 1936.  The acting was better.  The casting was better.  The costumes and sets were better.  The directing choices were better.  The adherence to the source material, while not perfect, was better.  The movie was so much more enjoyable to watch.

Romeo and Juliet has to be one of The Bard’s most popular plays, second only to Hamlet.  The tragic tale of the two young lovers is passionate and engaging.  The dialogue is poetic and romantic.  Everyone always thinks of it as such a great romance story, and I have to disagree.  A true romance is one that takes time.  The story of Romeo and Juliet takes place over the course of a few days, a week at most.  This is a story of teenage lust.

However, the original play has, as is generally the case with films of Shakespeare plays, been hacked, slashed, and rearranged to quicken the pace and remove anything that might be confusing for modern audiences.  An unabridged telling of the entire play would probably make for a 3 or 4 hour movie, and audiences might struggle to make sense of it all.  In this version, many of the great nuances of the play have disappeared, and as far as I’m concerned, several of the wrong things were cut.

I’ll name three things, to be specific.  First, in the beginning, the movie never explains why, or over whom, Romeo is so afflicted with melancholy.  And thus, it is never explained why Romeo, as depressed as he supposedly is, agrees to crash the Capulet’s party.  In the play he is pining over a girl named Rosaline, and he sees her name on the party’s guest list.  He goes to the party to moon over her.

Another thing the film omitted is the plague that causes Friar Lawrence’s letter to go astray.  But they get around that important plot point by introducing a new character from out of the blue who sees Juliet’s false funeral and runs to tell Romeo.  Unfortunately, he finds Romeo before he receives the letter.  Romeo immediately speeds away to Juliet’s grave, sees her supposedly dead, and pulls out the vial of poison.  Huh?  The scene with the apothecary was cut!  When did he get the poison?  Are we to assume he always carries a bottle of poison with him, just in case he might need it?

All that being said, they got so many things right.  The casting was especially good.  The actors all did a great job delivering the Shakespearean dialogue in a way that was, for the most part, understandable.  And the director made the wonderful decision to cast age appropriate actors, especially the two leads.  Olivia Hussy who played Juliet was, 17 years old, playing the 13 year old Capulet girl.  The 16 or 17 year old Romeo was played by an 18 year old Leonard Whiting.

Other notable actors were John McEnery as Mercutio, Michael York as Tybalt, Milo O’Shea as Friar Lawrence, and Paul Hardwick and Natasha Parry as Lord and Lady Capulet.  Pat Heywood also turned in a fantastic performance as The Nurse.  She had just that perfect mixture of foolish busy-body and doting nanny that the character requires.

Franco Zeffirelli was nominated for Best Director for his work on the film, though he did not win.  However, the film did win much-deserved Academy awards for Cinematography and Costume design.  I especially loved the realistic looking costume design.  For anyone who loves Shakespeare, I would recommend this movie for the wonderfully realistic visuals alone.

And lastly, I have to mention the incredibly well-choreographed fighting sequences.  Whiting, York, and McEnery each had to have been coached in fencing to make the fighting scenes exciting to watch and believably executed.  Either way, well done, everyone!

1968 – Rachel, Rachel

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Rachel, Rachel – 1968

Rachel is a psychologically damaged girl, and this movie is about how she goes through some hard and potentially harmful experiences, and overcomes them to become a saner and more self-assured woman.  She starts off under the heel of her overbearing mother and by the end, she is her own person.  The film goes into her past, into her head, and into her psyche, and does its best not to shy away from the darker aspects of her mental illness.  The only problem I had with that is that it only touched on those darknesses without really exploring them.

Joanne Woodward played the title character Rachel Cameron, a grade-school teacher in a small New England town.  Right from the start, she is shown as chronically depressed and even close to suicidal.  She hates her job, she hates her home, and she hates her life.  She is a spinster who has never been with a man and feels guilty at the prospect of sex.  It is even shown that she has to rationalize masturbation.

Her mother, May, played by Kate Harrington, is never mean to her except when she consistently compares Rachel to her sister who married a successful man and has children of her own.  Her best friend, Calla Mackie, played by Estelle Parsons, is a fellow teacher.  Calla is more of a free spirit who has found religion in a serious way.  And finally, there is James Olson, playing the part of Nick Kazlik, a sleazy old school-mate with whom she loses her virginity.

The film’s pacing is pretty slow, and to be honest, not much happens.  The only thing that keeps things interesting is the little looks inside Rachel’s mind that show us what she is thinking.  Every now and then, ethereal dream music would start playing, the screen would shift to soft-focus, and Rachel would be shown doing things like accepting the lecherous advances of her groping boss, or violently shoving an overdose of sleeping pills down her mother’s throat.

These little peeks into Rachel’s mind did a pretty good job of portraying the depths of her depression and her longing to have love and freedom in her life.  I suppose that Woodward did a good job with the role, but I would have liked to have been drawn into her character even more, somehow.

At one point in the movie, the character of Calla does something that really surprised me.  She convinces Rachel to go with her to a revivalist church service.  When Rachel has a bad experience and is overwhelmed with emotion and unwanted human contact, she faints.  After the experience, Rachel is in tears and Calla is trying to comfort her.  The comfort moves from talking, to touching, to hugging, to touching cheeks, to a passionate kiss!  Rachel flees in horror!

Funny, but Wikipedia describes the character, saying, “Is Calla a lesbian, or did she merely react to the emotion of the moment?  The film does not answer this question.”  In fact, yes, it does.  There are two more scenes in the film with the two women which, in my mind, made it very clear.  Especially when Rachel says to her, “Calla, sometimes I wish I could have been different for you.”  What else could that mean?

Then there was Rachel’s first sexual experience, her pregnancy scare, and her ultimate disappointment when she learned that she was not really with child.  And it was not lost on me that when she thought she was pregnant, she was shown smoking and drinking heavily.  Is that a result of the era in which the movie was made, or was it a plot point to show how messed up the character was?

Either way, it was some pretty bold subject matter for 1968, made even more surprising by the fact that this film was the actor Paul Newman’s first attempt at directing.  I will give the film credit for being pretty gutsy in trying to get into the inner thoughts and feelings of the character, like you can do when you are reading a book, something most movies don’t even attempt because it really slows the pace of the film.

1968 – The Lion in Winter

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The Lion in Winter – 1968

This was a period piece that was packed full of heavy drama and complex characters.  It was on par with other dramatic period pieces like A Man for All Seasons and Becket.  In fact, Peter O’Toole played the exact same character that he played in Becket, but at a much older age.  That being said, The Lion in Winter was in no way a sequel to Becket.  The plays upon which the two films were based were penned by different authors, Jean Anouilh for Becket, and James Goldman for The Lion in Winter.

O’Toole played King Henry II of England.  His wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, was played by Katherine Hepburn.  Their three sons, Richard the Lionheart, Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany, and King John of England, were played by Anthony Hopkins, John Castle, and Nigel Terry.  Timothy Dalton played King Philip II of France.  And lastly, to round off the cast, Jane Merrow played Alys, Countess of Vexin, Henry’s beloved mistress.

The film’s drama was very well done.  It was inherent in the plot.  Henry keeps Eleanor locked in a prison most of the time, but brings her out for special occasions like religious holidays and state events.  The two share a love-hate relationship, and even at the end of film, it is unclear whether they love each other or not.  The film’s conflict arise out of this contentious marriage, and the event of Christmas, for which Henry calls on Eleanor to attend him.

During this Holiday visit, the matter of the successor to the throne of England is to be decided.  Henry wants John to be the heir to the throne.  Eleanor wants Richard to be the next King.  None of the three boys have any love for their parents, as none of them were ever shown any love from them.  The plotting and scheming that goes on, which involves the visiting King of France, and Henry’s mistress, is engaging and even intense, at times.  And just in case you are wondering, the issue of Henry’s heir is never resolved.  If you want to know which son became the next King of England, you’ll have to look it up on your own.

Katherine Hepburn turned in a spectacular performance.  As a matter of fact, she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for the roll, and I thought it was well-deserved.  The way she delivered her lines, her body language, and her air of haughty nobility was fascinating to watch.  O’Toole also did a wonderful job as the childish Henry.  He acted out his wild emotions and made decisions without considering the consequences.  O’Toole was perfect for the part.

I also have to give special notice to the three sons.  They each had their own distinct personality and Hopkins, Castle, and Terry each created memorable and well-developed characters.  Richard was bold and aggressive.  Geoffrey was scheming and ambitious.  John was childish and hateful (and bordering on moronic).  The three characters, while not entirely likable, were very well-written and perfectly cast.

The sets and costumes were also spot-on, though for the most part, there were very few costume changes in the film.  The movie was filmed at various locations in Ireland and France, showing of some incredibly beautiful countryside next to some wonderful medieval castles.  The scenes where Eleanor was arriving and departing by boat were particularly lovely.  This was a thoroughly enjoyable film.  The language, as one might expect from a British historical drama, was, at times a bit verbose, but it was incredibly well written.  Some of it was almost poetic, despite the intense and dramatic nature of the dialogue.

Just as an interesting note, I have to mention that of the three sons, I was most impressed with Anthony Hopkins’ performance, in which there was some incredibly homo-erotic tension between Richard and King Phillip.  But what was even more impressive was the fact that this was his big-screen debut.  It just goes to show you how impressive an actor Hopkins is.

1968 – Funny Girl

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Funny Girl – 1968

Funny Girl was Barbara Streisand’s first film, which makes her performance pretty impressive, even though she may have been slightly miscast.  I mean, she was 95% perfect for the role, but that extra 5% didn’t work for me.  What I mean by that is that one of the major plot points of the film concerned her character’s self-image.  She thought of herself as an unattractive woman.  The problem is that Streisand was not unattractive, especially not in her younger years.  Sure, she was no Marilyn Monroe, but how many people were?

Aside from that, they couldn’t have cast anyone better than Barbara.  She played the character of Fanny Brice in a musical, loosely based on both the famous Zigfield girl’s career and her personal life.  Early on, before she becomes a huge star, she meets Nick Arnstein, played by Omar Sharif.  Their love affair and marriage was rocky, which gave us most of the film’s drama.  Walter Pidgeon played Florenz Ziegfeld, and that pretty much covers the major cast.

You see, the show was really all about Barbara… I mean Fanny… No, I mean Barbara.  In fact, Barbara had played the role on Broadway, and when it was decided that a film would be made, Streisand was producer Ray Stark’s first and only choice to play the part.  Columbia Pictures executives suggested that veteran actress Shirley MacLaine should play Fanny, but when William Wyler agreed to direct the film, he was quoted as saying of Streisand that, “I wouldn’t have done the picture without her.”  Columbia pictures gave in and they made the right choice.  Barbara was fantastic in the role and won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance.  Funny Girl was also nominated for 7 other Oscars including Best Picture.

Now, I have to mention something that, in my opinion, could have been better.  Sharif should never have been allowed to sing.  He was passible, but he was put opposite Barbara Streisand.  For that reason alone, he sounded worse than he really was.  I noticed that they kept his singing to a minimum, but he stood out in a bad way whenever he did.  But aside from that, his acting, as always, was just fine.  He did a good job as the depressed but loving husband who couldn’t keep up with his wife’s successful career.

I’d also like to mention the costumes.  I was surprised that the film was not nominated for Best Costume Design.  Irene Sharaff was the designer, and she really did a fantastic job.  The colors were bright and cheerful, but not obnoxious.  Streisand’s costumes, in particular were lovely and exuberant.  And I’ve no doubt that Sharaff had a field day designing for the Ziegfeld Follies sequence.

And while I’m on the subject, I have to mention how much I loved that whole scene.  Fanny was told to sing a bridal song called His Love Makes Me Beautiful.  Well, Fanny almost refused to sing it, which would have ended her career before it had begun.  So she agrees to sing the song, but turns it into a hilarious comedy number by stuffing a pillow under her wedding gown, making herself look very pregnant.  The stunt nearly gets her fired anyway, but the audiences loved it so much that Ziegfeld reluctantly ordered her to perform the number the exact same way until the song could be changed.

Streisand did a wonderful job, and I enjoyed watching the film.  Several wonderful songs like People, Second Hand Rose, Don’t Rain On My Parade, and My Man were memorable and there’s no doubt that Barbara knew how to sell a song.  She was mesmerizing.  In fact, I knew some of those songs before watching Funny Girl, and it was great to see them in the context of the show.

Funny Girl had a sequel called Funny Lady that was made in 1975.  Despite the fact that Streisand reprised her role, the film, from what I have read, wasn’t nearly as good and was not anywhere near as successful as its predecessor.  So, I think I’ll be skipping that one.  Sorry Barbara.

1967 – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

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Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? – 1967

I liked this movie.  Sure, it was predictable, but it had a really good message.  The acting was all pretty amazing, and the script was well-written.  The movie’s big stars were Sidney Poitier, Katherine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy.  Newcomer Kathrine Houghton filled out the main cast, but I have to make special mention of three other actors who each stood out to me as very good actors.  Roy E. Glenn, Beah Richards, and Isabel Sanford proved that they were every bit as good as the Hollywood superstars.

The movie was primarily about racism and it did a wonderful job of examining the issue from a few unique angles.  The movie was about a rich white family in San Francisco who are most definitely not racists.  Spencer Tracy plays the father, Matt Drayton, and Katherine Hepburn plays his wife, Christina.  Their 23 year old daughter Joanna comes home from a vacation in Hawaii, engaged to John Prentice, played by Poitier.   The main drama of the piece is centered around how the parents deal with the interracial relationship between Joanna and John.  Being a non-racist is all very well and good, but it is a different matter when it hits home in such a big way.

Sure, John seemed to be perfect husband material.  He was a prominent and wildly successful doctor.  He was kind, thoughtful, polite, respectful, conscientious, and clearly in love with Joanna.  The problem that Matt had with him was the color of his skin, and that’s OK because that was the social issue the film was trying to tackle.  But my problem would have been the fact that the girl wanted to marry a man she had only known for 10 days.  Forget skin color!  After only 10 days, you have no idea who this man is!

The film also looks at the situation from the perspective of the family’s black maid, Tilly, played by Sanford.  She showed a certain amount of anger at John because it was like he was trying to rise above his station, as if a black man had no business trying to marry a white woman.  Then there was the film’s surprising view of interracial relationships from the perspective of the church.  Monsignor Mike Ryan, played by Cecil Kellaway, was in full support of the marriage without reservations.

But for me, the stand out member of the cast was really Hepburn.  She had a couple of scenes that were priceless, the best of which is one in which she fires her employee for being a horribly racist woman.  Her little monologue was so perfect that it bears repeating here.  “Now I have some instructions for you. I want you to go straight back to the gallery – Start your motor – When you get to the gallery tell Jennifer that she will be looking after things temporarily, she’s to give me a ring if there’s anything she can’t deal with herself. Then go into the office, and make out a check, for “cash,” for the sum of $5,000. Then carefully, but carefully Hilary, remove absolutely everything that might subsequently remind me that you had ever been there, including that yellow thing with the blue bulbs which you have such an affection for. Then take the check, for $5,000, which I feel you deserve, and get – permanently – lost. It’s not that I don’t want to know you, Hilary – although I don’t – it’s just that I’m afraid we’re not really the sort of people that you can afford to be associated with.  Don’t speak, Hilary, just… go.”  A properly chagrined Hilary drives away without a word.  I loved it!  Then after that the film was pretty bold in its use of language when Joanna calls Hillary a “bitch!”  Quite surprising… but appropriate.

I also have to mention the incredible acting of John’s parents John Prentice Sr. and Mary, played by Glenn and Richards.  They were both great, but Beah Richards stood out to me as wonderful.  She doled out some of the film’s most profound wisdom, and she was pivotal in the film’s climax in which Matt changes his mind and decides to give his blessing on the marriage.  The film was a wonderful proponent of racial tolerance, released at a point in history when the issue was the hot topic.  But I think that it was the character of John who said it best when he said to his disapproving father, “You think of yourself as a colored man.  I think of myself as a man.”  How very true.   OK, maybe Poitier rivaled Hepburn in performance power.  Of course, Tracy’s speech at the end was supposed to be the film’s main emotional climax, but while it was good, his style of subtle and understated emotion just didn’t pack the same punch as the other actors.

1967 – The Graduate

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The Graduate – 1967

I’ll be honest, I’m having a difficult time liking this movie, and I’m not sure exactly why.  The plot was interesting enough and the acting was pretty spot-on.  The look and feel of the film definitely portrayed a 60s vibe, and even the confused and adolescent attitude of the era was appropriate.

But I think there were a number of things that didn’t quite work for me.  First, believe it or not, I didn’t like the music, but I’ll get to that in a moment.  Second, I didn’t like most of the characters.  Third, I thought the pacing was unnecessarily slow.  And fourth, I thought that some of the directing choices were a bit off.

Dustin Hoffman played the lead character, college graduate, Benjamin Braddock, a whiney and neurotic 21 year old.  The film begins as he arrives home after graduation to a house full of family friends that he doesn’t particularly like.  The uncertainty of his future frightens him and he just wants to be left alone.  But his controlling parents, played by William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson, are so self-involved that they have a habit of hearing him without listening to him, and are thus incapable of understanding him.

One of the party guests, Mrs. Robinson, played by Anne Bancroft, who is an alcoholic, gets Ben to drive her home, manipulates him into going into her house with her, and does her best to seduce him into having sex with her, even going so far as to present herself to him as naked as a jay-bird.  He refuses her advances, but later asks her to meet him at a hotel for a forbidden rendezvous.  Well, to make a long story short, they have an ongoing affair until he goes out with Mrs. Robinson’s beautiful daughter Elaine, played by Katharine Ross, and falls head-over-heels in love with her.  See?  It has the makings of a great plot, right?  So why am I having trouble liking this movie?

OK, so as I mentioned earlier, one of the biggest disconnects for me was the music.  The film’s music was written and performed by the sensational folk/rock duo, Simon and Garfunkel.  Four songs, in particular, were used in the movie: Scarborough Fair/Canticle, The Sound of Silence, April Come She Will, and of course, Mrs. Robinson, the last one being the only one that premiered in the film.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love the music.  All of it.  But it didn’t seem to fit the movie.  The lyrics didn’t have anything to do with the action taking place on the screen.  The music fostered a certain feel and determined the movie’s pacing, but it all seemed way too slow.  I think the music was too gentle and the story didn’t feel at all gentle.

And then there were director Mike Nichols’ attempts to make the movie more edgy and experimental than it needed to be.  It was as if he was trying to use unique camera angles and odd blocking choices that sometimes kept certain characters separated from each other, and at other times, kept them strangely together.

Sometimes his edgy camerawork succeeded, like in the scene where Mrs. Robinson first throws herself at Ben.  The camera is focused on him while quick flashes of her bare breasts violently force their way onto the screen, effectively portraying Ben’s horror at his situation.  But at other times, Nichols was trying to be too clever and it just translated as awkward.  For example, the scene in which Ben is forced to embarrass himself in front of his parent’s friends by parading around in full scuba gear and jump in the pool.  The scene was filmed from Ben’s perspective, through the scuba mask, even after he is in the water.  I know it was supposed to be funny, but the scene felt contrived, like it was trying too hard to be humorous.  And then the slow and melancholy music would start playing, immediately sucking anything that resembled comedy right out of the scene.

Anne Bancroft was the best part of the film.  Her character, while not exactly likable, was well-played.  Mrs. Robinson was probably the most complex, and therefore the most realistic of the main characters, and I think that had just as much to do with the script as with Bancroft’s good performance.

1967 – Doctor Dolittle

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Doctor Dolittle – 1967

To paraphrase a line the Simpsons episode entitled, “Cue Detective”, when the students of Springfield Elementary are forced to watch Doctor Dolittle, one of them says, “The movie’s run time is 152 minutes.  No!  The run time is NOW!”  They try to make a break for it but are forced back into their seats with water from a fire-hose.  I couldn’t agree more.

I’m sorry to say it, but this was a terrible movie musical.  The acting was bad, the plot was predictable, the special effects were poorly done, the songs were monotonous and unmemorable, the pacing was slow and plodding, the overall message was ridiculous, and on top of all that, they broke the cardinal rule of movie-making.  Cute for the sake of cute is never cute… never!

Where do I start?  Well, for one thing, the film would have been just fine if I had been between the ages of 3 and 6.  But as an adult, I found it to be bizarrely farcical and ridiculous.  The plot is so strange, at times downright stupid, that it was almost embarrassing to watch.  Again, a 4 year old child would probably enjoy all the flights of fancy and fantastical imagery.

The movie starred Rex Harrison as the title character, Doctor Dolittle, an eccentric man who loves animals so much, he has no problem romantically kissing a seal.  Yes, that actually happened.  He sang it a love song, and kissed it.  His supporting cast included Anthony Newley as Matthew Mugg, a shiftless Irish stereotype, and Tommy Stubbins, played by child actor William Dix, an annoying little boy whose main purpose in the film was to look cute. And lest I forget, Samantha Eggar, playing Emma Fairfax, the overly-independent young woman who is cross with everyone.  She allows everyone, especially the Doctor, to treat her horribly, and then inexplicably falls in love with him anyway.

The film begins by telling the story of the good Doctor.  Apparently he was a terrible physician who grew fed-up with stupid people.  So when a sentient parrot introduces herself to him, he decides to treat animals instead.  He spends years learning to speak their languages, revealing that all animals possess human level intelligence, and are all more polite than most humans.

The big goal of the plot?  Why, to find the mythical Great Pink Sea Snail, of course.  Unfortunately, when they finally do, it was a huge anticlimactic disappointment.  The sorry-looking animatronic creature appeared extremely fake and poorly made for a movie with such a big budget.  Along the way to achieving this goal, Dolittle and his companions meet several mythological animals like the Pushmi-pullyu: a llama with front halves of two llamas connected to each other like Siamese twins.  It was just the kind of creature that would spark the imagination of a toddler.  Of course, there was the Giant Pink Sea Snail, and lastly, the Giant Lunar Moth, large enough for Doctor Dolittle to ride it all the way from the magical floating island somewhere off the coast of Africa, back to his native England.

So if it was such a ridiculous, terrible movie, why was it nominated for Best Picture?  To answer that question, I’m going to quote excerpts from the Wikipedia article that explained it all.  “The film was originally budgeted at $6 million, but the final cost was triple that.  The film’s first sneak preview in September, 1967 in Minneapolis was a failure. The audience consisted largely of adults, who were not the primary target audience. The general audience response rated it poorly, with frequent complaints about the film’s length. A shorter edit of the film, previewed in San Francisco, was no more successful; a still shorter edit, previewed in San Jose, was well enough received to be approved as the final cut.  According to the book Behind the Oscar, Fox mounted an unparalleled nomination campaign in which Academy members were wined and dined. As a result, the film was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture”

So, an aggressive nomination campaign ensured that this flop has gone down in history as good enough to be nominated for Best Picture.  How very disappointing.  I’m sorry to say it, but so far, this is one of the worst films to be nominated for Best Picture, beat out, in my humble opinion, only by the 1930/31 nominee, Skippy.

1967 – Bonnie and Clyde

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Bonnie and Clyde – 1967

Notorious bank robbers and killers, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker are the leads in this semi-comedic, and somewhat fictitious telling of the pair’s murderous partnership, beginning with their meeting and ending with their deaths.  Many of the film’s bullet points actually happened in real life.  Most of them did not.  But there was just enough truth in the film to get away with using their infamous names.

Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway starred as the trigger happy duo, and to be sure, this film had plenty of violence and blood.  Michael J. Pollard played their slow-witted accomplice, C. W. Moss, and Gene Hackman also had a part as Clyde’s older brother Buck.  Buck’s dowdy wife Blanch was played by Estelle Parsons.

The movie was fun to watch, and had the feel of a crazy, playful, red-neck romp through the south, but the subject matter was anything but light hearted, except that you’d never know it based on the music.  Whenever a law enforcement officer was murdered, and Bonnie and Clyde were making their escape, crazy, banjo-heavy music would start to play like it was an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard.

But it was black comedy, so there was a certain kind of humor, though it was never intended to make you laugh.  For example, Clyde held up a bank at gunpoint, but is told by the single teller that there is no money.  Apparently, the bank had been closed for two weeks.  So, Clyde pulls the teller out to the getaway car so he won’t have to be the one to tell Bonnie that they held up the bank for nothing.

As usual with a film based on true events or characters, I did a little research into the real Bonnie and Clyde.  One of the things that the film got right was that they weren’t very good bank robbers.  Jobs would get bungled on a regular basis.  Sometimes they would rob shops or stores instead of banks because they were always short on cash, but the places they robbed were often short on cash as well, so they would get away with only a few dollars.

The character of C. W. Moss was a combination of several real life people.  He was a mechanic, and was brought on board as a getaway driver.  Small and dopey-looking Pollard played him almost as a bit of comic relief.  He played the part well, and I actually ended up liking his character.  And I also liked how he was loyal to Bonnie and Clyde, but only to a point.  He saw their downfall and did nothing to warn them.

But I learned that in the original draft of the script, he had a very different role.  He was supposed to have been two things.  He was supposed to be big and brawny, and he was supposed to be Clyde’s bisexual lover.  This would help put a dramatic strain on the relationship between Clyde and Bonnie.  But the producers decided that audiences weren’t ready for something that controversial, so they achieved the desired effect by making Clyde impotent.  Not that it mattered.  The real-life Clyde Barrow was neither bisexual nor impotent.  But OK, Hollywood – whatever.

Both Beatty and Dunaway did their parts well, but for me, Dunaway was a bit of a scene-stealer.  Apparently this was the role that propelled her into super-stardom, and it was well deserved.  From start to finish she created a complex character with intriguing motivations.  Sure, Clyde was just a bad man, but Bonnie followed him.  Why?  What was it about him that made her love him so much?  And the notion of a female gangster has its own attractiveness.

I also have to give a special thumbs up to Hackman and Parsons for some good performances as well.  Hackman always has a certain confidence about him that is clear and strong.  He seems like he feels at ease in front of the camera.  And Parsons played the part of an annoying woman well, almost too well.

My one disappointment?  A small supporting role played by Gene Wilder.  He played Eugene Grizzard, a man whose car is stolen by the Barrow Gang, but when he chases them down, he and his girlfriend are taken hostage.  It seemed like Wilder was trying hard to be serious and dramatic, but his strange, dead-pan delivery bordered on pure comedy.  It was just a costume away from Willy Wonka.  Listen to him say “Faster!  Faster!” during the chase scene, and you’ll see what I mean.

1966 – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – 1966

OK, this was one seriously messed up movie.  My jaw was practically on the floor.  The performances of all four of the actors were incredible and need to be commended.  But it was the biting and razor sharp script that was really the film’s star.  The film is based on the popular play of the same name that was written by Edward Albee.  The movie was really pushing boundaries when it premiered in 1966.

So what was so daring about it?  Well, its use of profanity, for one thing.  It was crass and incredibly unrepentant about it.  The director, Mike Nichols, had to fight to have all the original language from the play kept in the film.  He, and other people involved in the movie, made sure that the incendiary language of the script was not watered down by the Hayes Code.  In fact, this film was one of the forerunners of a more modern kind of film that was able to break free from the shackles of that prohibitive code.  And believe it or not, the world didn’t come to an end.  Audiences were mature enough to handle it.

The two lead characters, George and Martha, played by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, were vulgar, spiteful, hateful, and vicious, for starters.  Add to that the fact that they were both severely emotionally damaged, and you have the makings for some pretty good drama.  Add to that the phenomenal quantities of alcohol they each consumed over the course of the film, and you have one of the most intense dramatic films I’ve seen in a long time.  The movie is called a black comedy, but I saw no comedy at all.  Every line seemed to be laced with poison.

George and Martha are a middle-aged married couple who, on the surface, hate each other with a passion.  They are both so mean to each other that it seems ridiculous that they should be together.  But underneath all the harsh words and insults, they really do love each other, though it is a side of their relationship that they very rarely show.  But when they do, their affection for each other is painfully clear and surprisingly deep.

The two actors playing the supporting characters of Nick and Honey, were George Segal and Sandy Dennis.  You might think that it would be difficult for them to keep up with such big names as Taylor and Burton, but Segal and Dennis both stepped up to the challenge.  They were just as competent and really showed off their acting chops.  They complimented the more experienced actors and helped to develop the film’s hyper-dysfunctional feel.

The plot is intricate and complex, too much to go into in a review this short, but I’ll give a quick, bare-bones synopsis.  George is a history professor at a small New England College.  Martha, his wife, is the daughter of the school’s president.  She is a vulgar harridan who views her husband as a weak-willed man who is a failure in his career because he will never be qualified to take over her father’s position.  George sees Martha as a wild and overbearing harpy who is bitter and domineering.  Nick is a new Biology Professor who has plans on some day being president of the college, himself.  Honey is a frail woman who is afraid of having children.

Every now and then, the subject of George and Martha’s son would come up, but it was treated as a taboo subject.  Something wasn’t quite right, and it soon became apparent that it was the big mystery of the plot.  What was true and what wasn’t?  Of course the climax of the movie revealed the real answer, and it was strange, to be sure.  But the dark truth was enough to take me completely by surprise.

Each of the four actors turned in a spectacular performance, and each was nominated for an Oscar for their efforts.  However, only Taylor and Dennis won.  That’s too bad, because I thought that though they were all good, Burton stood out to me as a cut above the rest.  His portrayal of the weak-willed George was inspired.  First of all, it was against type.  I’ve never seen him in such a role.  He usually plays the strong confident characters, but here, he was the exact opposite.  It was unexpected and his performance was brilliant.

I would recommend this movie, only to those with a thick skin.  But if you can handle it, the intense drama is well worth the effort.

1966 – The Sand Pebbles

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The Sand Pebbles – 1966

This was a very well-made film which, on the surface, appeared to be a war movie, except that it really wasn’t.  The story took place in 1926 during the Chinese Revolution, but the revolution was not the focus of the plot.  The focus was on the crew and captain of a U.S. Gunboat, the San Pablo.  The film begins as a new Machinist’s Mate 1st Class, Jake Holman, is assigned to the vessel.  He is wonderfully played by Steve McQueen.

Jake is a simple man who is generally good at following orders, unless they go against his conscience.  The first half of the 3 hour movie follows him as he tries to learn his place as part of the San Pablo’s crew.  Most of the ship’s duties are actually run by ‘coolies’ or local civilians, leaving the crew to easier tasks.  But Jake wants to do his own work, run and maintain his own engines.  This not only offends the Chinese laborers, but upsets the ship’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Collins, played by Richard Crenna.

One of my favorite members of the crew was Frenchy, played by Richard Attenborough, a sensitive young officer who befriends Jake, despite the fact that most of the men consider him to be a ‘Jonah.’  The sailors frequent a local bar that provides alcohol and prostitutes.  Frenchy meets an educated Chinese girl named Maily, played by Marayat Andriane.  Meanwhile, Jake meets an American missionary named Shirley Eckert, played by Candice Bergen.  Love blooms on both fronts.

In the second half of the movie, the revolution begins and through a series of events, Frenchy marries Maily, who is killed by Chinese Nationalists after Frenchy dies of pneumonia.  Jake is accused of the pregnant woman’s murder as an excuse to blockade the gunboat.  After that, word of the Nanking Incident arrives and the San Pablo is ordered to return to the Yangtze River, an order which Lieutenant Collins disobeys so that he can save the missionaries still on Chinese soil, including Shirley. The final sequence is the ill-fated rescue attempt in which Collins and Jake are both killed.

The film’s plot was engaging and the characters were well fleshed out.  I particularly liked both Jake and Frenchy.  Both McQueen and Attenborough did a great job.  The cinematography was, at times pretty spectacular, as the film was shot in Taiwan and Hong Kong.  The atmosphere was exotic, and yet still grounded in an American feel, since most of the action took place on a U.S. vessel.

The music must also be mentioned as especially memorable. The powerful score, written by Jerry Goldsmith, was exciting and stirring, and really colored the entire film with a distinctly Chinese feel.  Goldsmith, who is famous for writing numerous iconic and recognizable film and TV scores from 1954 to 2003, wrote an exciting score that really helped tell the story.

It is hard to find too much fault with the film.  Director, Robert Wise did a great job with the pacing and the character development.  The sets and costumes were spot on.  The filming locations were marvelous and they even went so far as to build a working replica of a gunboat which was based on a Spanish Navy gunboat that had been seized by the U.S. Navy during the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Other actors in the film who did a good job were Jake’s coolie assistant and friend, Po-han, played by Mako.  Simon Oakland played Machinist’s Mate Stawski.  Sure, his character was an ass, but he played the part well.  There was a boxing scene between Po-han and Stawksi that was a bit intense and cool to watch, even if it stretched believability a bit, its only saving grace being that they made the point of showing that Stawski was slightly drunk.  Po-han should not have won.  But this was such a minor infraction that it is hardly worth mentioning.  The film was a good one and it was engaging enough that I didn’t feel the 3 hours it took to watch.

And just as a side note, I have to mention something that I am particularly happy about.  1966 seems to mark the official end of the black and white era.  As I am looking at the movies that are coming up in the list of Academy Award nominees, most of them appear to be in glorious color!