The 1960s was when everything shifted. The most chaotic era for Hollywood since the rise of talkies, the film industry was unrecognizable by the end of the decade. It was the end of the studio system, which had been slowly suffocating for years after the United States v. Paramount case in 1948 that broke the stranglehold studios had over the movie theater market. The end of the Hays Code in 1967 and the implementation of the MPAA rating system signaled the end of an era. Independents rose to prominence, explicit sex and bloody violence went from taboo to commonplace, and some of Hollywood’s most beloved genres came crashing down.
Does that mean the Academy acknowledged any of this? Barely. If anything, they stuck their heads in the sand for almost the entire decade, sticking to a very specific mix of films to nominate for Best Picture. They are: big musicals, British dramas, and historical epics. A few radical films snuck in here and there, but otherwise the Academy spent the 60s trying to prop up the bloated corpse of Hollywood’s old system. That doesn’t mean everything they nominated were mediocre attempts to make sure audiences just didn’t stay at home and watch television.
Top 5 Best Picture Nominees of the 1960s
- Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – Sometimes the general consensus is just right. David Lean’s epic masterwork about army officer T.E. Lawrence and his divided loyalty between his homeland of Great Britain and the Arab tribes that took him in has been consistently praised as one of the greatest films in history, and it dominated the 35th Academy Awards, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Original Score, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound. It’s one of the few films that truly earns the title “timeless”.
- The Apartment (1960) – Billy Wilder had his moment with the Academy at the top of the decade when this romantic dramedy about affairs at an insurance office netted five prizes, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. Inspired by a true story about a Hollywood agent who was shot in the thigh by a film producer for having an affair with the producer’s wife, Wilder’s cynicism is at its most mellow here. It’s a love story for the ages, even if it meant Fred MacMurray was accosted by a prude woman with a purse for making a “dirty filthy movie”.
- The Graduate (1967) – Legendary for breaking Hollywood taboos about sex, Mike Nichols’s film about an aimless college graduate who has an affair with a woman his parents’ age before falling in love with her daughter was a lightning bolt when it was released. Featuring a stellar soundtrack composed of Simon & Garfunkel songs, a star-making turn for Dustin Hoffman, and an iconic performance from Anne Bancroft as the ultimate symbol of suburban ennui, Mrs. Robinson, the film was nominated for seven Oscars, ultimately winning Best Director. That evening, Best Picture went to In the Heat of the Night.
- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) – Words are weapons, and insults have never cut deeper than in Mike Nichols’ directorial debut about the most bitter aging couple on campus when they invite the new couple on the staff to join them for an evening of alcohol, emotional despair, and hateful games. Based on the stage play by Edward Albee, the groundbreaking depiction of a toxic marriage won five Oscars, including Best Actress for a never-better Elizabeth Taylor and Best Supporting Actress for Sandy Dennis. However, it failed to win Best Picture, which went to A Man for All Seasons.
- Z (1969) – This Franco-Algerian thriller based on the assassination of Greek democratic politician Grigoris Lambrakis first electrified audiences at Cannes, winning the Jury Prize, before becoming a massive success for a foreign-language film in the United States. Cherished by the Black Panthers and shown to anti-fascist movements, the film was nominated for five Oscars, ultimately winning Best Foreign Language Film and Best Film Editing. Best Picture went to the equally but differently radical Midnight Cowboy.
Honorable Mentions: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Doctor Zhivago (1965), The Hustler (1961), Judgement at Nuremberg (1961), Mary Poppins (1965)
Bottom 5 Best Picture Nominees of the 1960s
- Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) – Perhaps the ultimate example of Hollywood’s death rattles in the 1960s, this costly box office bomb was so harshly received by critics and audiences that it derailed star (and total diva) Marlon Brando’s career for an entire decade. It’s a bloated monstrosity that is more noteworthy for the truly nightmarish production that involved Brando’s irresponsible decisions, lack of management at MGM, and hurricane season in Tahiti more than its seven Oscar nominations and zero wins.
- Hello, Dolly! (1969) – Do you want to know why big movie musicals are a rarity nowadays? You can blame this legendary bomb that almost killed off the genre completely. Based on the successful Broadway show, the production went wrong almost immediately with a miscast Barbra Streisand and spiraled out of control from. It won three Oscars and was nominated for four more, but time has not been kind to this lifeless, inert corpse of a film that was indicative of everything out-of-touch about Hollywood in 1969, when the world was in chaos. An excellent example of Hollywood’s love of pointless excess.
- Doctor Dolittle (1967) – British and a musical! Profoundly stupid and pointless beyond belief, it is also more notable for having a production cycle from hell – including Rex Harrison being a antisemitic asshole, the crew irritating the locals of Saint Lucia so much that they faced rock-throwing mobs, a giraffe stepping on its own dick, a parrot that learned to yell “Cut!”, and a goat that ate the script. One of the biggest box office bombs of the 1960s, the film received nine Oscar nominations after 20th Century Fox hosted 16 consecutive nights of screenings for Academy members on the studio lot, complete with free dinner and champagne. It won Best Original Song.
- Tom Jones (1963) – Based on Henry Fielding’s classic picaresque novel about a free-spirited play boy in 1700s England, it was praised back then for breaking the fourth wall and playing everything to the audience all the way in the rear of the auditorium. Nowadays, it’s criticized exactly for those tricks. It hasn’t aged well, and there’s little pleasure to be found in Albert Finney sleeping around for two hours. It won four Oscars, including Best Picture out of possibly the worst lineup in Academy history.
- The Music Man (1962) – Did I already establish my hatred of this decade’s musicals? Because it might bear repeating. Based on the beloved musical, the film tells the overly long story of a salesman who nags a woman until she falls in love with him might work if it was presented as sad and disturbing instead of a cheerful, opulent production. It’s unnerving to watch and its artificiality makes it even worse. It’s another reason why we should keep theater kids six feet away from everyone else at all times.
Oscars Trivia: 60s Edition
- The decade’s most nominated director was Arthur Penn, who received nods for The Miracle Worker (1962), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and Alice’s Restaurant (1969). He did not win any of them. The decade’s most awarded director was Robert Wise, who won twice for West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965).
- The decade’s most nominated Best Actresses were Anne Bancroft and Katharine Hepburn, who were both nominated three times. Bancroft won once for The Miracle Worker (1962), while Hepburn won back-to-back Oscars for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and The Lion in Winter (1968). The second year Hepburn won also featured the only time this category had a tie. Hepburn won and so did Barbra Streisand for her debut film performance in Funny Girl (1968). Hepburn did not attend, but Streisand did, so she had the stage all to herself to tell Oscar: “Hello, gorgeous!”
- The decade’s most nominated Best Actors were Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, who were both nominated four times. Despite that, neither of them won an Oscar in their lifetimes. Even more interestingly, no actor won more than once. However, Sidney Poitier broke barriers this decade by becoming the first black man to win Best Actor for his performance in Lilies of the Field (1963).
- West Side Story was the most awarded film of the decade. It won ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno). The most nominated film was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with 13 nominations, which tied a record with 1931’s Cimarron by being the second film in Academy history to be nominated in every single category it was eligible in.
- The highest grossing nominee (and winner) was The Sound of Music (1965), which became the first film in history to make more than $100 million in its first theatrical run. Adjusted for inflation, the film has made more than $2.36 billion worldwide, placing it in the global top ten.
- The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago are intrinsically linked in a way that would make La La Land and Moonlight blush. Both were nominated for ten Oscars (and faced off with each other in multiple categories), both won five, and both are among the top ten highest grossing films of all time when adjusted for inflation, with both of them pulling in more than $2 billion each.
- Oliver! (1968) was the last G-rated Best Picture winner. The following year, Midnight Cowboy (1969) became the first, and to date only, X-rated film to win Best Picture. It might arguably be the biggest case of whiplash in Academy history, with the wins of Green Book (2018) and Parasite (2019) close behind.
- This decade also saw the introductions of two new categories. Best Makeup & Hairstyling was first awarded at the 37th Academy Awards to 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964), and once later in the decade for Planet of the Apes (1968). The now defunct Best Sound Editing award was also first awarded this decade, with the inaugural winner being It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).
They Didn’t Win? They Weren’t Nominated?
- Psycho (1960) – Sure, the film received four nominations including Alfred Hitchcock for Best Director and Janet Leigh for Best Supporting Actress, but the fact that one of the year’s biggest hits (despite mixed initial reviews) and one of the most radical films in American cinema was shut out of Best Picture was due to intensive lobbying from John Wayne in support of his financial bomb The Alamo.
- The entire year of 1963 – The Academy acknowledged that films like Hud, 8 & ½ , The Leopard, and The Great Escape exist by giving them some nominations and even wins in major categories, but the Best Picture lineup that was arguably the weakest in their long history. Not a single one of the nominated films has stood the test of time.
- Audrey Hepburn – Despite being nominated for her luminous, outright iconic performance in the classic rom-com Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Hepburn lost the Best Actress race. However, she did lose to Sophia Loren for her role in Two Women (1961). By winning, Loren became the first actor in Academy history to win for a non-English language performance (the film was made in her homeland of Italy).
- In Cold Blood (1967) – The adaptation of Truman Capote ironclad classic novel scored four nominations including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, but it failed to win any of them. It was also shut out of the Best Picture race, most likely to Doctor Dolittle’s aggressive campaign.
- Stanley Kubrick – Yes, he won Best Visual Effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – and frankly, that award should’ve gone to the VFX crew leaders, not the director himself – so the fact that the Academy didn’t award the film in any of the other four categories it was nominated in, including Best Director and Best Production Design, feels like a massive oversight in the grand scheme of things.
That’s all for the 60s. Next up, we’ll continue to travel back, and see what the Academy was up to in the 1950s. See you next time!
Retrospective 2001 a space odyssey 7 faces of dr lao 8 and a half a man for all seasons albert finney alfred hitchcock alices restaurant anne bancroft audrey hepburn barbra streisand billy wilder bonnie and clyde breakfast at tiffanys cimarron cleopatra 1963 david lean doctor dolittle doctor zhivago dr strangelove or how i learned to stop worrying and love the bomb dustin hoffman elizabeth taylor fanny fred macmurray funny girl green book guess whos coming to dinner hello dolly how the west was won hud in cold blood in the heat of the night its a mad mad mad mad world janet leigh john wayne judgment at nuremberg katharine hepburn la la land lawrence of arabia marlon brando mary poppins midnight cowboy mike nichols moonlight mutiny on the bounty oliver 1968 parasite peter otoole planet of the apes psycho 1960 richard burton rita moreno stanley kubrick the alamo 1960 the apartment the graduate the great escape the hustler 1961 the leopard the lion in winter the miracle worker the sound of music tom jones truman capote two women west side story 1961 whos afraid of virginia woolf z 1969
21, born and raised in Boston. Mamma Mia wine mom personality. Jerry Gogosian of the film world.