1968 birthed film renaissance
'2001', 'Graduate' only some of year's greats
By TODD MCCARTHY
Apr. 25, 2008
It was the best of times and the worst of times in 1968.
The worst was the year's news: the two convulsive assassinations, the
deepening quagmire in Vietnam, Chicago's Democratic National
Convention and Nixon's election, for starters. The best, at least for
anyone who went to movies, was the unprecedented sense of symbiosis
between what was going on in the world and what we were seeing onscreen.
For a film buff just coming of age and seized with the need to begin
writing about the electrifying new films that seemed to arrive by the
week , it was positive paradise.
Boomers reminiscing about how groovy and far-out it was back in the
late '60s are too tiresome for words, so I'll put it as plainly and
factually as possible: In a period of just a few days in late August
of 1968, two weeks before leaving for college and navigating between
skirmishes at the Democratic Convention, I saw in first-run release
"2001: A Space Odyssey," "Rosemary's Baby," "Petulia," "Belle de
Jour," "Targets" and "The Thomas Crown Affair." I don't think I've
had a better week of new pictures, before or since.
Much has been written about this period in movies, about the advent
of the movie brats, the last golden age of Hollywood from around
1967-1975 and how vital the film culture was at the time. It's all
true, of course, and the palpable feeling of excitement and new
possibilities swept me up along with so many others. Naturally, being
18 and avid didn't hurt.
It's easy to describe the leap my life took in 1968: At the beginning
of the year I was a film-obsessed high school senior who had never
written a word on the subject, and 10 months later I was turning out
two long film columns per week at a large university paper, as well
as meeting the great veteran King Vidor on campus one week and a kid
named George Lucas the next. Writing film reviews was never something
I had intended to do, but a direct result of the urgency and
greatness of the films we were bombarded with at the time.
"2001" started it. Having read the lukewarm Variety review and the
New York Times dismissal when Kubrick premiered the 160-minute
version in New York on April 3, I was wary but still unconvinced the
film could actually be bad when I arrived for the very first Chicago
public showing -- a reserved-seat matinee during Easter break -- at
the Cinestage one week later. To say I was blown away would be both
cliched and entirely accurate, to the extent that, for the first
time, I felt compelled to race home and put my thoughts about a film
down in writing.
How many masterpieces or, at least, severely impressive films were
born around the world that year? To go strictly by the titles
reviewed by Variety during the calendar year, in addition to the
pictures I saw that August, we can start with "Weekend," "Planet of
the Apes," the complete Russian "War and Peace," "Charlie Bubbles,"
"The Party," "Madigan," "The Edge," "Les Biches," "Capricious
Summer," "Faces," "Memories of Underdevelopment," "The Immortal
Story," "Yellow Submarine," "L'amour fou," "Mandabi," "Stolen
Kisses," "Teorema," "Monterey Pop," "Coogan's Bluff," "Flesh,"
"Beyond the Law," "Romeo and Juliet," "The Boston Strangler,"
"Bullitt," "Night of the Living Dead," "Shame," "La femme infidele,"
"If..." and "The Producers."
There were also the first modest features of Scorsese, de Palma,
Herzog and Pialat, the indelible exploitationers "Vixen,"
"Psych-Out," "The Savage Seven" and "Wild in the Streets," and
assorted specialized items at the far ends of high- and low-brow,
including "Danger: Diabolik," "Secret Ceremony," "Head," "Je t'aime,
je t'aime," "Innocence Unprotected," "Artists Under the Big Top:
Perplexed," "Death by Hanging," "The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena
Bach" and "Lonesome Cowboys."
When reviewing any year's artistic highlights, it's always essential
to remove the rose-colored glasses to be reminded of which films were
the favorites at the time. In 1968, the majority of the top 10
grossers (several of which were year-end 1967 releases) were strictly
squaresville; in descending order, they were "The Graduate," "Guess
Who's Coming to Dinner?," the reissue of "Gone With the Wind,"
"Valley of the Dolls," "The Odd Couple," "Planet of the Apes,"
"Rosemary's Baby," "The Jungle Book," "Yours, Mine and Ours" and "The
Green Berets," which now looks instructive in that it's possibly the
last popular war film made while the relevant war was still in progress.
It's also useful to recall that, while the disintegration of the old
studio system allowed some adventurous new filmmakers in the door,
the flip side was a lack of clear-headedness that promulgated such
fiascos as "Blue," "Boom," "Star!," "The Shoes of the Fisherman,"
"The Magus," "Candy" and "Skidoo," films which, in their own ways,
reflected the conflicted and confused thinking of the times just as
much as the successes did.
So what was it like on the ground for a burgeoning film buff during
this time? I remember hearing the initial firsthand report about "The
Graduate" at an NYU cafeteria around Thanksgiving of 1967, from some
guys who had just caught an advance screening and spoke as if they
had seen themselves in a movie for the first time. I had never had a
girl grab me during a movie until, a couple of days later, it
happened at the scariest moment of "Wait Until Dark," which was also
memorable for provoking the loudest in-unison scream I'd ever heard,
from 6,200 people in Radio City Music Hall. Other excellent date
movies of the season were "A Man and a Woman" (natch), "Bonnie and
Clyde: (among a multitude of other merits), "Elvira Madigan"
(swooning suicidal doom) and "Isadora" (extravagant hedonism).
Best double date: "Vixen." Worst dating movie mistake: taking a girl
to see "Camelot," as planned, rather than following her hip mother's
last-minute advice that we see Godard's "Masculin Feminin" instead.
Best all-guy outing: "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." The furthest
I traveled to see a movie: In June, 1968, a non-driver friend heard
about a sneak preview of "Funny Girl" in Milwaukee and prevailed upon
me to drive there from Chicago to catch it. This was five months
before the film's release and the reaction was huge. I was
sufficiently impressed that I instantly wrote my one and only letter
to a studio executive, in which I informed the head of United Artists
how good "Funny Girl" was and advised him to hire William Wyler at
once to direct the film version of "Man of La Mancha," the rights to
which UA had recently acquired. I never heard back.
In New York in early April '68, my friends and I were on our way to
the theater around 7:30 p.m. when all of Times Square seemed to go
quiet and motionless. We soon saw that everyone was looking at the
news heart-stoppingly coming around the famous illuminated marquee:
Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot dead.
For some time it felt as if the entire area was under water. Then,
the question of what to do now presented itself. Nothing seemed like
the right choice, but in the end we went ahead and saw Zoe Caldwell
in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." Later that night, masses of
people came down Broadway from Harlem, this just a few nights after
hundreds of hippies had whooped and hollered through Greenwich
Village reacting to LBJ's announcement that he wouldn't be running
again for president. Politics and cinema converged most famously that
year when the Cannes Film Festival was shut down in May; everyone has
stories about how they either got out or made the best of it in an
essentially closed-up town, and the conjecture persists as to whether
"Fireman's Ball" or "Petulia" would have won the Palme d'Or had the
festival run its natural course.
We couldn't have known it at the time, but that summer was the final
flush of glory for the great Chicago movie palaces in which were
rooted my most primal moviegoing experiences: the giant-screened but
intimate Michael Todd, where as a kid I had first seen "The Bridge on
the River Kwai" with my Pacific war veteran father, as well as
"Ben-Hur;" its virtual twin the Cinestage, where "Lawrence of Arabia"
first transfixed me; the McVickers, where I'd witnessed three-panel
Cinerama; the glittering Palace (later the Bismarck), home to "My
Fair Lady" and then "Doctor Zhivago" for about half the decade; the
splendid Balaban & Katz Loop flagships of the Chicago, State-Lake,
Roosevelt and United Artists, as well as the chain's neighborhood
palaces such as the Uptown, Granada and Riviera, and Evanston's
ornate Varsity and Valencia; the elaborate Oriental, as well as the
Woods and the Loop.
The Esquire, Carnegie, Cinema and Playboy were smaller, more
sophisticated venues north of the river, the Monroe changed adults'
only double-bills every week and the immortal Clark was open about 20
hours a day, had a "Gals' Gallery" mezzanine for women only, cost
less than a dollar and featured an inspired daily change policy that,
during the Democratic Convention, lured me to see both "An American
in Paris" and "Singin' in the Rain" for the first time. Then there
was the magnificent, Moorish-Spanish-style Teatro del Lago in
No-Man's-Land, an odd bit of real estate between Wilmette and Lake
Michigan where Charlton Heston spent his teenage years and where I
first saw "El Cid."
They're all gone now, at least as film theaters. Four of them
downtown continue as legit houses and one as a concert venue, but
even an archeologist couldn't detect evidence of the others anymore.
It's the same in almost every other city -- although a bit less so in
Los Angeles -- one important element removed of what it was like to
experience movies four decades back.
The day I arrived at Stanford in September '68, I was showing myself
around campus when I happened by the Stanford Daily office. On a whim
I went in and asked if the paper needed a film critic. Told that the
previous one had graduated in June, I volunteered for the job. As it
happened, "Belle de Jour" had just opened locally, so I went back to
see it again, wrote it up, did a rewrite and got published. Within a
month I was skipping far too many classes attending the San Francisco
Film Festival and taking dates to Godard movies.
In such manner was at least one career born.
1968: The year of Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey'
'2001' lost the Oscar for best picture to 'Oliver!' that year, but it
wasn't the only acclaimed film to be bumped.
By Susan King, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
April 26, 2008
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held a 40th
anniversary party Friday night to honor Stanley Kubrick's seminal
sci-fi epic "2001: A Space Odyssey." Tom Hanks, whose career and
interests were shaped by the film, hosted the evening. Star Keir
Dullea and special-effects whiz Douglas Trumbull were also on hand
after the screening to talk about the film.
Although it's considered a true masterwork, "2001: A Space Odyssey"
wasn't nominated for a best film Oscar. The Academy Award for best
film that year went to the lumpy musical "Oliver!" That's all the
more surprising when you consider the bumper crop of outstanding
films from which to choose. To mark the anniversary, we take a look
at "2001" as well as other films that arrived in theaters in 1968:
"2001: A Space Odyssey"
Audiences had never seen anything quite like "2001." And even 40
years later, its then cutting-edge, Oscar-winning special effects,
sparse script, Geoffrey Unsworth's brilliant 70-millimeter
cinematography and that six-track stereo sound still pack a wallop.
Kubrick deals with the themes of evolution, technology and artificial
intelligence in the complex, cerebral drama. Because there is so
little dialogue, the film's music plays a crucial role in the film.
Originally, Kubrick had hired Alex North, who penned the music to
"Spartacus," to write the score. But Kubrick ended up going with
classical tunes, including Richard Strauss' "Also sprach
Zarathustra." Surreal and enigmatic, the film is considered by many
to be one of the most influential and best films ever made. Dullea
and Gary Lockwood star.
"The Odd Couple"
Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau teamed up for the first time in Billy
Wilder's cynical 1966 comedy, "The Fortune Cookie," with Matthau
walking away with the supporting actor Oscar for his role as Lemmon's
low-rent attorney brother-in-law. But they really hit pay dirt with
this rollicking adaptation of Neil Simon's hit Broadway play about
two friends -- the neatnik Felix Unger (Lemmon) and slovenly Oscar
Madison (Matthau) -- who become roommates as a consequence of
divorce. Screenwriter Simon and director Gene Saks don't reinvent the
comedy wheel with "The Odd Couple," but watching Lemmon and Matthau
(who appeared in the Broadway version) interact is like taking a
master class in comedic timing. Lemmon and Matthau became the best of
friends off screen and starred in 11 films together. Unfortunately,
their last film together was the dreadful 1998 "The Odd Couple II."
Matthau died on July 1, 2000; Lemmon died June 27, 2001.
Though it was condemned by the Catholic Church, audiences flocked to
see Roman Polanski's terrifying -- and influential -- adaptation of
Ira Levin's bestseller about a young woman (Mia Farrow) who discovers
that the baby she's carrying is quite literally a little devil.
Farrow, who had appeared on TV in "Petyon Place" and a few movies,
really came into her own with her performance as Rosemary Woodhouse,
a young woman who moves into a funky apartment in New York -- it's
actually the Dakota Building -- with her struggling-actor husband
(John Cassavetes). Unbeknown to her, her eccentric elderly neighbors,
including Minnie (Ruth Gordon in her Oscar-winning turn) and Roman
Castevet (Sidney Blackmer), are actually witches and warlocks who
have devised a plan to have Rosemary bring the antichrist into the world.
Horrormeister William Castle, who directed such grade B horror films
as "House on Haunted Hill," had bought the rights to "Rosemary" while
it was still in galley form. He hoped that "Rosemary" would be his
first adult horror film. He brought in Paramount to be his partner on
the project, but the studio was hot on the young Polish director
Polanski. So Castle ended up being the producer.
The film was also considered a curse. Farrow was served with divorce
papers from her first husband, Frank Sinatra, during production.
Castle suffered from gallstones after filming ended and had to have
surgery. The film's composer, Krzysztof Komeda, died shortly
afterward from an accidental fall. And then Polanski's wife, Sharon
Tate, and their unborn son were murdered by Charles Manson and his
follower at their Benedict Canyon home.
Richard Lester was best known for his directing of the Beatles
musical comedy classics: 1964's "A Hard Day's Night" and 1965's
"Help!" And he finally got to show his range as a filmmaker with this
lovely romantic drama set in San Francisco at the height of the
Haight-Ashbury era -- even Big Brother and the Holding Company with
lead singer Janis Joplin is featured in one scene. George C. Scott
gives one of his more delicate performances as Archie, a physician
who is in the throes of a divorce. At a charity event, he meets the
quirky, beautiful socialite Petulia (Julie Christie), who is married
to a handsome, abusive young man (Richard Chamberlain). Archie and
Petulia -- two totally mismatched people -- find a fleeting love and happiness.
Barbra Streisand was an award-winning, bestselling recording artist;
her TV specials had captured Emmys and the hearts of critics and
audiences; and she was a superstar thanks to her turn as Fanny Brice
in Broadway's "Funny Girl." Then she got to make her mark in films in
this lavish, old-fashioned adaptation for which she won the Academy
Award for best actress (she tied with Katharine Hepburn, in "The Lion
in Winter," for the honor). William Wyler directed the musical drama,
which chronicled Brice's early years, her marriage to gambler Nick
Arnstein (Omar Sharif) and her years as one of the stars of the
Ziegfeld Follies. Herbert Ross, who went on to direct films,
including the ill-conceived 1975 sequel, "Funny Lady," staged the
musical numbers. Streisand, who was married to Elliott Gould at the
time, had an affair with Sharif during the production, and their
scenes together just sizzle.
"The Lion in Winter"
Anthony Harvey became the first director to win the Directors Guild
of America's top award who didn't go on to win the Oscar for best
director. The academy bestowed the Oscar to Carol Reed for
"Olivier!," which in retrospect was one of his weakest films.
Harvey, though, did a spectacular job with this tart, sophisticated
historical drama penned by James Goldman, starring Peter O'Toole as
the aging Henry II (a role he first played in 1964's "Becket") who
reunites with his estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Hepburn), on
Christmas to pick an heir to the throne. And what a group of ninnies
they have for sons -- Richard the Lion-Hearted (Anthony Hopkins in
his first film), Prince Geoffrey (John Castle) and Prince John (Nigel
Terry). The film is remarkably free of the pomp and circumstance
typically seen in such period pieces. The castles are dirty and dank.
The royals eat like pigs and are far less clean than boars.
The year of 1968 was a big one for John Cassavetes. Not only did he
play Farrow's husband in "Rosemary's Baby," he scored a critical hit
with this searing indie film. Though Cassavetes had directed a few
films before "Faces," this intimate drama put him on the
international map as a filmmaker and created his reputation as a
founding father of the independent film movement. The film explores
the dissolution of a 14-year marriage of an aging, childless couple:
Maria (Lynn Carlin, in her Oscar-nominated turn) and Richard (John
Marley). Cassavetes' wife, Gena Rowlands, plays a high-class
prostitute, and Seymour Cassel received an Oscar nomination for his
performance as the laid-back Chet whom Maria meets at a disco.
Cassavetes, who was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay, shot
the film at his own home and at his mother-in-law's. Though the film
has influenced many directors, including Martin Scorsese and Sean
Penn, not all critics raved about it. Pauline Kael said: "There are
scenes in 'Faces' so dumb, so crudely conceived and so badly
performed that the audience practically burns incense."
Cassavetes wasn't the only actor turned director who made a project
with his wife in 1968. Paul Newman made his auspicious directorial
debut with this poignant drama starring wife Joanne Woodward as
Rachel Cameron, a 35-year-old virginal schoolteacher in a small town
who thinks she has found love with a former high school friend (James
Olson). After he puts an end to their brief affair, Rachel discovers
that she may be pregnant. Though Newman failed to receive an Oscar
nomination for his acclaimed direction, "Rachel, Rachel" was
nominated for best film, lead actress and supporting actress for
Estelle Parsons who plays Rachel's close friend.
Writer-director Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers made beautiful belly
laughs together when they first teamed for 1963's slapstick delight
"The Pink Panther," in which Sellers plays the inept, accident-prone
Parisian Detective Inspector Jacques Clouseau. Edwards and Sellers
went on to make several "Panther" movies together, including the 1964
masterpiece "A Shot in the Dark." But in 1968, the two collaborated
on their only non-Clouseau film, a rib-tickling farce that recalls
the old silent movie comedies. Sellers plays Hrundi B. Bakshi, a
clumsy Indian actor who turns a swank Hollywood party into a disaster
of epic comedy proportions. Though some critics thought his Bakshi
bordered on caricature, the majority of movie reviewers embraced this
exercise in sight gag and silly jokes.
"Romeo and Juliet"
Leave it to Italian director Franco Zeffirelli to turn Shakespeare
into a hot commodity. Until his lush, erotic version of the Bard's
tragedy, the best-known adaptation of "R&J" was the 1936 version
starring thirtysomething Norma Shearer and fortysomething Leslie
Howard as the ill-fated teen lovers. But in this version, Zeffirelli
cast honest-to-god teenagers -- Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting --
in the title roles. Though not the greatest thespians, they were
breathtakingly beautiful and even, egads!, naked in one scene.
Needless to say, tweens and teens flocked to the film. The Nino Rota
score became an overnight sensation and was the fourth-bestselling
album of the year. And Henry Mancini also scored with his single
version of the theme song. The film was nominated for several Oscars,
including best film and director. At a recent 40th anniversary
screening in San Francisco, the audience went wild. And Hussey, who
was in attendance, told the crowd that she gets e-mails from
12-year-olds who love the film. "Even today, the film still appeals,"
she said. "To see the way young people react to it is inspiring."
The granddaddy of all contemporary detective films is just as fresh
and enjoyable as when it was first released. Steve McQueen, who was
the king of cool, is at his iconic best as Frank Bullitt, a savvy San
Francisco police detective who drives a groovy Mustang. Bullitt finds
more than he bargained for when the witness he's assigned to protect
is killed by mobsters. Among the film's iconic moments are the
roller-coaster exciting car chase sequence on hilly streets in San
Francisco and Bullitt chasing down a bad guy on a runway at SFO.
Directed by Peter Yates, "Bullitt" was the first film to use the
lightweight Arriflex cameras.
Though director Mel Brooks won an Oscar and Writers Guild of America
Award for his riotous screenplay and Gene Wilder earned an Oscar
nomination for supporting actor, this seminal comedy wasn't a hit
when it was released. In fact, Embassy, the company releasing the
film, thought it was in bad taste and didn't want it in theaters.
Peter Sellers, though, saw it privately and put an ad in Variety to
support the film. Embassy caved in and released it sparely.
Politically incorrect and laugh-out-loud funny, the film centers on
two New York theatrical "producers" -- Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel)
and his timid account, Leo Bloom (Wilder), who attempt to get rich by
having investors put money into a Broadway show, "Springtime for
Hitler," that is guaranteed to flop. Their investors? Old widows who
are romanced by Bialystock. The big problem is that the show becomes
an overnight sensation -- but there's no way to repay everyone. More
than 30 years later, Brooks turned "The Producers" into the Broadway
musical that ended up breaking the record for the most Tony Awards.
The play's stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick reprised their
roles in the disappointing 2005 film version.
"Planet of the Apes"
Remarkably fun, entertaining sci-fi adventure based on the Pierre
Boulle novel about three astronauts who crash land on a planet where
apes rule and humans are treated like animals. Charlton Heston gives
one of his best performances -- and did his first nude scene -- as
Taylor, the fiesty astronaut who famously tells his captors, "Take
your stinking paws off of me, you damn dirty apes." John Chambers
created the state-of-the-art makeup for the actors who played the
apes, including Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter and Maurice Evans. Jerry
Goldsmith penned the evocative score, and Franklin Schaffner provided
the near flawless direction. And, of course, the final scene is one
of the most memorable put on screen. "Apes" spawned four sequels, a
live-action TV series, an animated series and the dreadful 2001
remake by Tim Burton.
"Wild in the Streets"
James Dean look-alike Christopher Jones creates quite a splash in
this American International Pictures' cult flick based on a short
story by Robert Thom, who also wrote the screenplay. Barry Shear
directed this tale of a singer and revolutionary, Max Frost (Jones),
who lives with his band and their groupies in a big mansion in Los
Angeles. Frost causes quite a commotion when he's asked to perform at
a televised political rally by a Senate candidate (Hal Holbrook), who
is trying to get the voting age knocked down to 18. But at the rally,
Frost declares that the voting age should be lowered to 14! Soon
protests by youths break out all over the country. Holbrook's
candidate and Frost meet and agree the voting age should be 15.
Holbrook wins by a landslide. Through a series of clever plot
devices, Frost becomes president of the United States, reduces the
retirement age to 30 and forces anyone 35 and older to be rounded up
and sent to "re-education" camps, where they are given LSD. Shelley
Winters, Richard Pryor and Diane Varsi star; Barry Williams, who went
on to appear as Greg in "The Brady Bunch," plays the young Max Frost.