Bob Dylan sang that the “times they are a changin” and he could not have been more accurate. The sixties were filled with turmoil on American soil, beginning with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, followed by his assassin’s murder on live television. Four years later the leader of the Civil Rights movement Martin Luther King was gunned down, and just a year later, destined for the US Presidency, Robert Kennedy was murdered after speaking to a crowd in California, ending the hope that seemed possible for America. Angry at the deaths of their leaders, of the men who had inspired them, the youth of the time lashed back in protesting the war in Viet Nam, making clear their mistrust of their leaders, of anyone over thirty.
All forms of art changed in the decade, yet oddly film was the last one to do so. The studios held onto the business with a death grip that finally was eased in 1967 with the success of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Graduate (1967) two films which spoke to the American youth metaphorically. This would signal a new movement in American film that spilled over into the seventies, the single most exciting decade in movie history, a time when films mattered, when films more than any other time held a mirror up to society. t was a time teeming with creativity.
Major new directors to emerge in the sixties would be the gifted Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn, Mike Nichols, Richard Brooks, Alan J. Pakula, and Dennis Hopper, while we were introduced to new actors such as Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman. Jane Fonda stunned the film world with her startling performance in They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969) which all but erased the memory of the science fiction flick Barbarella (1968) and saw critics take her seriously as a major actress.
And oh the flops. So many big budget flops out of Hollywood, where the producers and studio chiefs did not seem to realize that audiences wanted more realistic films. Like the times, he had not changed and it cost them millions. Among the major failures of the sixties were Tha Alamo (1960), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), Cleopatra (1963), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Star! (1968) and Hello Dolly (1969) to name a handful. Luckily for audiences and critics, there were great films waiting in the wings.
THE TEN BEST AMERICAN FILMS OF THE SIXTIES (1960-69)
1. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)…David Lean’s intimate epic about WWI hero T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) a British officer sent to Arabia because his superiors have no idea what else to do with him. There he fell in love with the pristine desert, believing it to be clean, cleansing, and would bring together the warring tribes to fight against the Turks. Stunning the Arabians by crossing the desert to take the city of Aquaba, with its gun facing the sea because they did not believe anyone could possibly cross behind the them, Lawrence won the admiration and trust of the tribes who made him a God. Dressed in flowing white robes, he took no orders from anyone, he simply did what he believed needed to be done. Yet there was a darkness to this man, a need for killing, a lust for it, and in the years after the war it was learned that Lawrence was a sado-masochist, a homosexual and a killing machine. This was alluded to in the film, gently by David Lean, through the movement of eyes, looks and body language throughout the film. And of course that O’Toole performance remains one of the most charismatic performances ever put on the screen. The theme gives me chills, and the director gives us some astounding images on the screen, vast desert vistas, never once losing sight of the fact his film is about a single man, and what a man he was, flaws and all. Dressed in flowing white robes, O’Toole looks magnificent as Lawrence, a God in the desert and we understand why they followed this man. But in the end he was, just a man, with dark and very deep flaws.
2. BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967)…Warren Beatty, an actor, had the courage to demand that he be permitted to make this film. Marching into Jack Warner’s office, he made clear that the initials on the famous Warner Brothers water tower were indeed WB, which could also stand for Warren Beatty. Ballsy, confident and pushy, Beatty won the right to make his producing début, and put together an extraordinary group of talent to make the film. Director Arthur Penn took a page from the French New Wave cinema and gave the film a European style merged with that of American cinema, cast Beatty as Clyde Barrow, Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker, Gene Hackman as Buck Barrow, and Estelle Parsons as Buck’s wife, and the rest is movie history. Yes, Bonnie and Clyde were bloodthirsty bank robbers, he impotent and likely a homosexual, she a nymphomaniac, so an odd couple to be sure. On film, again, much is suggested, but it was amazing how the director and writers made a statement about sixties youth with the film and their mistrust about what their government had done to them. Merging the French New Wave cinema with that of American film, they created what would become the New American Cinema taking us into the seventies. Just brilliant.
3. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)…There are many who might believe that this film should be number one or two, and I cannot argue that with them because it is an astonishing work of art, a demanding film that brings challenges and mystery to its audience, answering some question and not others. It is a matter of preference, and quite simply I prefer the other two films to this, which is not meant as a slight, but a point of honesty. Kubrick asks his audience for the first time, not to merely see his film, but to experience it, and by the end of the work, indeed there were people wondering what the hell was going on, while others had figured it out, had paid attention, and put it together or at least what they thought it was supposed to be about. Much of it is open to interpretation and for me the film is about the advancement of intelligence and the evolution of the human race. The visual effects are as striking as anything released today, the images Kubrick puts on the screen still remarkable after all these years yet perhaps the film’s greatest moment comes with the realization that we decide what we believe it to be about. What is the monolith? What does it mean? Why is their advancement of intellect each time it is touched or seen? What is the relationship between mankind and the “star child” at the end of the film. I love that he film challenges and stimulates intellectually, it marked a change in what was to come for American film. That is one brave filmmaker.
4. THE GRADUATE (1967)…Fresh out of college, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) should have the world at his feet. But this is 1967, the war is raging in Viet Nam and young people do not trust their elders with the blind faith they once did. Therefore it is sort of shocking when Benjamin is seduced by his mothers’ best friend, the very sexy Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the classic older woman. Still a virgin, Ben is introduced to sex by Mrs. Robinson, but it is sex without complication, without attachment without anything other than body contact. We get the feeling if Mrs. Robinson were not so lonely, she would not need a man at all in her life to be satisfied, but yearns for basic, even simple companionship, physical companionship. She wants sex, he wants a connection. Ben of course complicates matters when he falls in love with Elaine Robinson (Katherine Ross), his lovers daughter, and when she finds out all hell breaks loose. But the heart wants what the heart wants, and Ben wants Elaine and is prepared to do anything to get her. Hoffman made his leading man début with this, and became an instant star, and Anne Bancroft was never better nor more alluring. And those Simon and Garfunkel sounds plunge us back to the sixties effortlessly.
5. DR. STRANGELOVE… (1964)..Imagine making a comedy about 9/11 or the war in Iraq? Right now. The filmmaker would be run out of the business, because there is nothing funny about it, no humor can be drawn from those particular subjects. How did Kubrick and Terry Southern make Dr. Strangelove… (1964) work in the early sixties? Consider that just a short time before the film, President Kennedy had stopped the Russians from getting to Cuba with weapons and was prepared to go nuclear on them. There is and was nothing funny about nuclear war, but here is a film, the blackest of comedies that is indeed a film about that very subject and in fact the end of the world. A renegade pilot has taken an armed jet and is headed to Russia to drop the bomb, which of course will be met with Russia’s own launch, bringing about the end of the world. George C. Scott is hysterical, Peter Sellers simply brilliant in three roles, including that of that of the title character and the US President, but it is Kubrick in his steady march to doom that makes the film work. Like a bucking broncho, the crazy pilot rides the bomb ride down to its impact in Russia, the ultimate orgasm I suppose, and one that brings about the end of us all. An American director might never have been this brave directing a comedy. And My Fair Lady (1964) won Best Picture??
6. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962)…Based on one of the most beloved, iconic American books ever written, and the only one written by Harper Lee, about a trio of children awakened to racial prejudice in a small southern town during the Depression, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) represents a sheer labor of love for all who worked on the picture. Directed by Robert Mulligan, who never again made as fine a film, produced by future Oscar nominated director Alan J. Pakula, and written by Texan Horton Foote, the film is a perfect adaptation of a piece of modern literature. Gregory Peck, an actor of limited ability through the forties and fifties, finds the role he was born to play better than anyone else, that of Atticus Finch, a purely decent man, a lawyer, widower and father who will serve as public defender for a black man accused of raping a white woman. I doubt any actor then, even now, could play the role as well as Peck did, inhabiting the character in every way. This being the south, he is already guilty by accusation despite Atticus all but proving his innocence in the court. Peck is sublime, richly earning that Oscar for Best Actor he won, while Mary Badham as Scout is superb, capturing the youthful energy and constant curiosity about the world. In his first role Robert Duvall, snow-white hair, is stunning as Boo Radley, the boogey man and eventual savior of the children. An American masterpiece.
7. MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969)…The first X rated film to win the Academy Award, though X is not what you might think it would be. The film explores the relationship between a Texas cowboy, Joe Buck (Jon Voight) who comes to New York to be a stud, believing his God-given endowment will make him a great deal of money, while tubercular Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) who befriends Joe after stealing from him is just trying to stay alive day-to-day. Together they make a bizarre couple, like George and Lenny or Oscar and Felix, but there is something about them that works. Living in squalor, in a condemned building they eke out an existence day-to-day. Knowing they need money, Joe agrees to a homosexual encounter which goes badly, yet he comes away with the cash to get to Florida. Boarding a bus, Joe gely cares for his ill friend, until Ratso dies on the bus as they arrive in Florida, never to enjoy the sunshine, instead dying in his own urine, his only friend at his side. The great power of the film is that the actors are entirely authentic, just stunning, bringing an intimacy to their characters that is grimly real. Adding to the startling realism is the fact the film was shot on location often without permits while everyday life happened around them. British director John Sceslinger was the perfect choice because he refused to focus on New York landmarks, taking his cameras to the street to capture life thereby hurtling his audience and characters into it as it was unfolding. “React” he told them, “to all you see.”
8. WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966)…A couple in their mid-fifties, George and Martha, portrayed respectively by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor live in a most dysfunctional marriage. For their entertainment they bring home younger couples and then proceed to decimate the young pair by finding out as much as they can about them and using it against them. Much of the world George and Martha live in is of their own creation, and they bend and break the rules to suit themselves. Burton was never better as the seemingly battered husband who is more lethal than we imagine, while Taylor in one of the screen’s great portrayals is astounding as Martha, a braying, brash, vulgar woman, still sexy, but dangerous to any man who has an interest in her. George Segal and Sandy Dennis round out the quartet, in this Mike Nichols directed adaptation of the play. Intentionally claustrophobic, the walls seem to close in as the war within escalates and human emotions are laid to waste. Yet for all their vile games against one another, there is no doubt of their love. Bizarre. Taylor and Dennis took home Oscars, Burton should have, as should have the film and director Nichols.
9. PSYCHO (1960)…On a slim budget, shooting in black and white, breaking conventional movie rules, Alfred Hitchcock would revolutionize the horror genre with this disturbing film that to this day terrifies audiences. “Less is more”, Hitchcock often said, believing that by not showing the audience exactly what was happening on screen the imagination would run wild. How right he was. Killing off the star of the film thirty minutes in threw audience off kilter, allowing the director to place them in the world of Norman Bates, portrayed superbly by Anthony Perkins, a deeply disturbed young man who runs the Bates Motel. Norman is also a taxidermist, something he has put to good use in his home, something that has helped him stay in touch with his mother long after her death. The shower scene is still one of the most shocking moments in all of movies, again for what you do not see, though the blood running down the drain and that unseeing eye of Janet Leigh launched thousands of nightmares. Suddenly the monster was no longer supernatural, he was the good looking boy next door.
10. THE HUSTLER (1961)…In the smoky pool halls and back rooms of cigar stores, is a world we do not know or understand unless ee are part of it. Such a place existed at Mike’s Place when I was a kid, a store where I went to get my movie magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland each month. At the far end of the place was a pool hall where I had been instructed by my grandparents never to enter. “Lot of rough characters back there son:, my grandfather told me. ‘Nuff said, it creeped me out. The characters that existed in the back room, populate the world of The Hustler (1961) one of the finest character studies of the decade, and the first real indication that Paul Newman was going to dominate sixties cinema as Brando had that of the fifties. As Fast Eddie Felson, Newman is electrifying, a crass, selfish man who cares only for himself; it is a dark, fearless performance, a character Newman would become famous for portraying, not once but twice, later in 1986 for director Martin Scorsese in The Color of Money (1986). He should have won an Oscar for The Hustler (1961) and did years later for the sequel (of sorts). George C. Scott is reptilian as his evil manager Bert, Piper Laurie haunting as his doomed girl, and Jackie Gleason, cool as a cucumber as Minnesota Fats.
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