Ranking the Best Picture Winners: Entering “No Woman’s Land” (1966 – 1979)

In 2019, when the female-led historical drama The Favourite was nominated for Best Picture, some Oscar handicappers warned that this film was the longest shot of all, because, generally speaking, “movies about women don’t win Best Picture.” (Movies about women have won Best Picture for the past two years in a row, but that’s another post for another day.) Prior to 1966, this wouldn’t have been much of a predictor. The winners for 1965 and 1964, The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady, both featured female lead characters; Lady‘s main competition, Mary Poppins, also starred a woman. Maria from West Side Story can be considered a co-protagonist, with a character arc of her own; despite my problems with her, the same might be said of the rather dim Fran Kubelik in The Apartment. Gigi and All About Eve took the prize in the 1950s; the 1940s saw the triumphs of Mrs. Miniver and Rebecca. 1939’s Gone With the Wind may have aged like milk, but it’s still clearly a woman’s story, and its detractors often cite another female-centered movie, The Wizard of Oz, as the movie that should have won Best Picture that year. It Happened One Night‘s Ellie Andrews, like Maria and Fran Kubelik, is a co-protagonist. Even mediocre winners The Broadway Melody and Cimarron are female-led. So just where did this idea that “movies about women don’t win Best Picture” come from?

I suspect it springs from the general adulation given to the period I’m about to cover, the late 1960s through the 1970s. Film buffs love these years, heaping loads of praise on their Best Picture winners. I can understand were the love comes from, since this time period saw the fall of the Hollywood studio system and, along with it, the infamous Hays Code that imposed heavy restrictions on classic-era films, especially where sex and language were concerned. (True, many great films were made during the years the Code was in force, but they were great in spite of the Code, not because of it.) The most acclaimed movies from the late 60s and early 70s touch on subjects that would have been unthinkable under the Code. New York gigolos (Midnight Cowboy), mob families (The Godfather Parts I and II), traumatized war veterans (The Deer Hunter), call girls (Klute), and homicidal taxi drivers (Taxi Driver) could now have their stories told with unflinching realism; a veil was lifted off those areas of society that the Code had kept hidden, and fascinated audiences responded then and have been responding ever since. Yet the new freedom came with a dark side. Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, originally published in 1974, cites the period in which she was writing as the worst yet when it comes to female representation. The Best Picture winners of this time period reflect this: between 1966 and 1983, not a single with a female protagonist took home the top prize. The only female characters in those winners substantial enough to warrant a Best Actress nomination for their performers — Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Beth Jarrett from Ordinary People (1980) — were villains, each in her own way a reflection of male anxieties about second-wave feminism. Accordingly, I have more Never Seens from this period than from any other Oscar era.

Now to take a deep breath and dive into specifics:

1966: A Man for All Seasons [Personal Favorite]

As someone who grew up with PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, I have a distinct weakness for British historical dramas. (This will come up again.) I love the aura. I love the costumes. Most of all, I love the acting. Paul Scofield, primarily a stage actor, gives a master-class performance as Sir Thomas More, the good friend and advisor of Henry VIII who lost his head when he opposed Henry’s breaking with the Catholic Church to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. The real More was far less upright, by modern standards at least, than the stalwart man of honor depicted here, but the story of the tension between conscience and politics remains strong and relevant. Leo McKern also acquits himself brilliantly as the villainous (in this movie, anyway) Thomas Cromwell, as does John Hurt in the small but noteworthy role as treacherous weasel Richard Rich. This film rarely gets much attention these days, but if you’re a fellow Masterpiece Theatre fan, you shouldn’t miss it. (Avoid the Charlton Heston remake.)

1967: In the Heat of the Night [Good]

Here we have our first example of a movie that could never have been made thirty years earlier. Sidney Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia detective sent down South to help in a murder investigation. In one scene, a bigoted white man slaps him in an attempt to “put him in his place.” Poitier had made it known that he — or rather, the character he plays — would not take that slap without giving it back with interest, and indeed that’s just what happens; audiences in 1937 would be shocked and even disgusted, but nowadays, the scene inspires cheers. A gritty, intense, well-acted crime drama (Rod Steiger is also very good as the Southern small-town sheriff) that I need to watch again.

1968: Oliver! [Good, but Not for Me]

This big-budget musical may seem painfully old-fashioned alongside such films as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but for what it is, it’s well done. The performances are good; the songs are catchy and well-staged; best of all, with the exception of Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes, all the adults in the cast have the skills needed for musical roles. (Sykes’ big number, “My Name,” was cut from the film. but Reed is so strong in the role that it’s one instance in which I can forgive the powers-that-be for giving him the role.) Yet I put it in the “Not for Me” tier, because the movies I designate as “Good” are nearly all ones I can enjoy rewatching, and I’ve never felt that compelled to revisit this film. David Lean’s 1948 film Oliver Twist tells Charles Dickens’ story much better.

1969: Midnight Cowboy [Never Seen]

1970: Patton [Never Seen] I do enjoy the rousing theme song.

1971: The French Connection [Never Seen]

1972: The Godfather [Never Seen]*

1973: The Sting [Never Seen] — Of my Never-Seens from this period, this is the one I have the most interest in seeing at some point because I like its director, George Roy Hill. He’s the man behind two of my favorite coming-of-age films, The World of Henry Orient and A Little Romance. (This will air on TCM in March as part of its annual “31 Days of Oscar” campaign.)

1974: The Godfather Part II [Never Seen]*

1975: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [Never Seen] — I’ve read the book. That’s all I need. Stories meant to extol freedom and nonconformity shouldn’t come with a side of misogyny.

1976: Rocky [Never Seen] — but I have seen Saturday Night Live‘s Angel, “Every Boxer’s Girlfriend from Every Movie About Boxing, Ever,” so I feel like I’ve kind of seen it. (Aside from Matt, my husband: “there’s more to it than that, but it does give you the general idea.”)

1977: Annie Hall [Never Seen] — The title doesn’t fool me. Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall is not the protagonist or even a co-protagonist. Woody Allen’s the star.

1978: The Deer Hunter [Never Seen]

1979: Kramer vs. Kramer [Good]

This is the first Best Picture winner I actually saw in the theater when it was released. I was ten, and I could connect with the story of a father (Dustin Hoffman) struggling to raise his son after his wife (Meryl Streep) leaves. It holds up pretty well in my memory; I appreciate the movie’s refusal to cast Streep as a one-dimensional villain and instead giving her a point of view we can sympathize with, even though her screen time is too limited to earn her Best Actress consideration. (She did win Best Supporting Actress, however.) Still, the thing I like best about this movie is something we still see too rarely on the big screen: the friendship between Hoffman’s character and that of Jane Alexander, an actress who has never gotten the attention she deserves. Both single parents in the process of getting over divorces, they forge a bond that never slips into romance.

*My husband has been suggesting that he show me these one of these days. But his patience for epic films has kind of been limited these days.


Ranking the Best Picture Winners: 1960 – 1965

1960: The Apartment [Good, but Not for Me]

Another “little movie that could,” The Apartment is Marty’s darker cousin; again, we have two underdogs, bruised and battered by life, who find solace in each other, but the tone is much more acerbic, as its plot would suggest — an aspiring junior-level exec (Jack Lemmon) lets his married boss (Fred MacMurray) use his apartment to conduct extramarital affairs, but when Lemmon learns that his crush (Shirley MacLaine) is one of MacMurray’s many conquests, he starts to have doubts about the arrangement. The movie charts his journey toward becoming a mensch, a man of honor, and Lemmon’s performance engages our sympathies. But the standout among the actors is MacMurray, who brings the detestable, slimy boss to life with craft and charisma. Nonetheless, I can’t name this film among my favorites. I’m not wild about MacLaine, either her character or her performance. She’s cute, naive, and deeply damaged, but while her flaws are interesting, I kept wishing she had a few more observable strengths to balance out those flaws. Lemmon’s character has much more substance.

1961: West Side Story [Good]

One of the best big-screen adaptations of a Broadway musical hit, I put this one in the Good tier because, for me at least, its strengths — powerful songs, amazing dancing, scorching performances by Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, and George Chakiris — outweigh its flaws — the miscast romantic leads (Natalie Wood tries, and mostly succeeds when she’s not pretending to sing, while Richard Beymer is just plain flat and wooden) and the extreme suspension of disbelief required to accept the young men as violent, dangerous street toughs. This movie is a classic for a reason, but I actually like Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake just a little better.

1962: Lawrence of Arabia [Good]

Like 1959’s Ben-Hur, this movie is massive, with its sweeping desert landscapes and majestic score. It is also, unlike Ben-Hur, quite well-acted, with all its players, from Peter O’Toole (as Lawrence) to Alec Guinness to Anthony Quinn to Arthur Kennedy to the always-reliable Claude Rains and Jack Hawkins. But for some reason, it doesn’t have the same emotional resonance for me as the same year’s To Kill a Mockingbird or The Miracle Worker. I think I need to watch it again. Some movies don’t take firm hold of my memory and win my full appreciation until I see them a second time, and I think this might be one of them, not in spite of its grand scope but because of it.

1963: Tom Jones [Aged Like Milk]

As a work of literature, Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel, one of the earliest of the form, still holds some academic interest; those interested in studying the history of the English novel should give it a look. But as entertainment, its value depends on your level of tolerance for seeing an innocent young heroine put through hell for pages on end. My tolerance for such a thing, particularly when it’s presented with a light-hearted tone, is small to nonexistent. In this film adaptation, Albert Finney is charming as the roving rogue who hops from one willing lady’s bed to another, but watching poor, lovely Susannah York go from being held prisoner by her father and aunt until she agrees to marry a man she doesn’t love, to nearly being raped at the instigation of an older rival, is downright painful. There were much better films in 1963; It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World would have been a more amusing choice, and Lilies of the Field a more moving one.

1964: My Fair Lady [Good]

Another successful Broadway-to-Hollywood adaptation, My Fair Lady preserves Rex Harrison’s stage performance as Henry Higgins for posterity. He’s wonderful, as are Wilfrid Hyde-White, as his kinder best friend, and Stanley Holloway, as a Cockney rogue. But like West Side Story before it, the movie suffers from a casting mistake: Audrey Hepburn, whom I otherwise love, should never have been chosen to play Eliza Doolittle. She’s not terrible by any means, but Eliza should have set the screen on fire, and Hepburn just doesn’t have the energy that Broadway’s Julie Andrews would have brought to the role. (The growing frequency with which actors who could neither sing nor dance were cast in musical roles would soon bring about the downfall of the classic Hollywood musical). This movie was a favorite of mine when I was younger, but while I still respect and admire it, I don’t enjoy it quite as much as I used to, thanks primarily to Hepburn’s casting and some pacing issues.

1965: The Sound of Music [Uhhhhh…]

This movie is one of the most polarizing Best Picture winners of the classic era; people either adore it or deplore it, and I have friends and loved ones on both sides of the issue. I’m, well, caught in the middle. The movie does have its distinct virtues. Julie Andrews (as novice nun turned governess Maria) and Christopher Plummer (as her employer, Captain von Trapp) both give excellent performances, and they’re ably supported by Richard Haydn and Eleanor Parker. Some of the songs suffer from the over-familiarity that breeds contempt, but others (e.g. “Edelweiss”) are quite lovely. Yet too many moments involving the children either border on the saccharine or cross right over. While the adults in the cast give their all, a bit too much depends upon the children. Moreover, when the movie takes a darker turn in the last act, the tonal shift doesn’t work. So I can’t come down too strongly on either side. When the subject comes up in conversation, I just offer a vague, noncommittal nod.

Ranking the Best Picture Winners: 1951 – 1959

1951: An American in Paris (Good, but Not for Me)

I had to create a new Tier for this one: winners whose quality I acknowledge but that failed to land with me, for reasons that have as much to do with me as they do with the films themselves. This musical, directed by Vincente Minelli and starring Gene Kelly, has so much going for it, from the gorgeous Gershwin tunes to Kelly’s energetic dancing to Oscar Levant’s wisecracks to the extended ballet sequence at the climax. Yet I can’t help noticing how 1950s gender roles figure into the script. Leslie Caron, as Kelly’s love interest, is charming, but her role is so underwritten that “charming” is just about all I can say about her; meanwhile, Nina Foch’s “bad girl” is presented as a lustful schemer who needs to be taught her place. (This aspect of the film stands out in contrast to 1952’s unnominated Singin’ in the Rain, in which the female lead, played by Debbie Reynolds, has a personality and a point of view, and Kelly’s character actually helps her fulfill her career ambitions.) So even though I recommend it heartily to those who love musicals with excellent singing and dancing, I can’t say I love it.

1952: The Greatest Show on Earth (Not for Me)

This overblown spectacle’s winning Best Picture is one of Oscar’s biggest WTF moments. I saw it once, but so little of it stayed with me that it’s practically a Never Seen. Making matters worse is that perhaps the strongest, most enduring movie of that year, Singin’ in the Rain, failed to be nominated. Which of these has given cinema buffs the most pleasure over the years?

1953: From Here to Eternity AND–

1954: On the Waterfront (Never Seen)

I have the least to say about these films than any other winners I’ve talked about so far. Most of my Never Seens I’ve deliberately avoided for a specific reason, perhaps a dislike of the subject matter, or bad word of mouth, or a dislike of one or more of the actors. But with these, I honestly don’t know why I haven’t gotten around to seeing them yet. I can’t comment further on them.

1955: Marty (Good)

This film is almost certainly the least “splashy” Best Picture winner of the lot, with its minimal budget and short runtime and overall earthy quality. It’s not challenging or thought-provoking; it doesn’t have anything especially profound to say. It’s just a small, sweet film, a love story of two underdogs played by Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair, made at a time when Hollywood hadn’t forgotten how to make high-quality small, sweet films. Those who sneered at last year’s winner CODA for being a “feel-good movie” probably won’t like this one either. But if you’re like me and you relish movies that can make you feel good without insulting your intelligence, give this one a look.

1956: Around the World in 80 Days (Never Seen)

Even though I like David Niven, I believe I can spare myself the awkwardness of watching Shirley MacLaine playing an Indian princess.

1957: The Bridge on the River Kwai (God-Tier)

When a British POW officer (Alec Guinness) orders his men to build a bridge, at the behest of his Japanese captor (Sessue Hayakawa), that will be a marvel of British engineering, is he a traitor? This brilliantly acted World War II drama builds to a collision between Guinness and Hayakawa and a team of demolitionists (led by William Holden and the underrated Jack Hawkins) intent on blowing up said marvel of British engineering. It’s one of those admirable films that provoke thought by presenting a situation in which no one is wholly good or wholly evil, and each perspective is given time and attention.

1958: Gigi (Okay-to-Good)

At one time, this film would have found a place in my Personal Favorites tier, thanks to its clever Alan Jay Lerner/ Frederick Loewe songs and its dazzling turn-of-the-century setting; plus, my twentysomething self thought Louis Jourdan was hot. I still enjoy a number of the performances, particularly Hermione Gingold as the grandmother of Leslie Caron’s titular heroine, and the scene she shares with Maurice Chevalier, in which the two of them sing, “Ah, Yes, I Remember It Well,” is a poignant highlight. Yet I’ve come to think of this film as the reverse of 1955’s Marty; where the latter is a triumph of low-budget sincere storytelling, the former has all the high-budget gloss and glamor with little of the heart. It’s a spectacle that I can enjoy when it’s on but that leaves little impact on my emotions.

1959: Ben-Hur (Okay-to-Good)

What was I just saying about “spectacle that I can enjoy when it’s on but that leaves little impact on my emotions”? That description applies equally to this film. At the time when it took the top prize, “sword and sandal” epics set in ancient Rome, often at or near the time of Christ, were in vogue, and this was one of the biggest; everything about this movie is huge, from the sets to Miklos Rozsa’s dramatic score (which, I must confess, I love). But it’s not the best of its genre. For those looking for a historical epic with a Christian theme, 1956’s Quo Vadis is better acted, with Leo Genn and Peter Ustinov in particular giving superb performances; the only performance in Ben-Hur that I find holds up is that of Jack Hawkins, as the Roman commander whose life Charlton Heston’s Judah Ben-Hur saves. Those just interested in a glimpse of ancient Roman history should find 1961’s Spartacus more enjoyable; despite its long runtime, there’s always something interesting going on, and with the exception of a miscast Tony Curtis, every performance is strong; Ben-Hur, by contrast, has significant lulls in its action, and you feel its overlength. I did enjoy seeing the film on the big screen at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre some years back, but when I went into the lobby I caught sight of a group of young people having a ball taking turns mimicking Heston’s hammy performance. I guess that shows how well the film holds up…

Ranking the Best Picture Winners: 1945 – 1950

The time has come for me to bid a fond farewell to my favorite era of cinema history, the 1920s through the end of World War II. It wasn’t the best era; after all, the repressive Hays Code was in play for much of it, and while modern cinema could stand to be a lot more inclusive, particularly in welcoming and supporting directors and screenwriters who aren’t straight white men, it’s certainly more inclusive than, say, 1933, when an actor like Morgan Freeman, instead of crushing it in important roles in films like The Shawshank Redemption and Million Dollar Baby, would have been lucky to find extra work in King Kong. Also, three of my five favorite classic films of all time — To Kill a Mockingbird, Singin’ in the Rain, and It’s a Wonderful Life — come from this postwar era. Yet for some reason even I don’t quite understand, I find the movies of the 20s and 30s more purely fascinating than anything more recent, perhaps because through them I can look back at a time when the overall aura of cinema was one of glamor rather than grit, of magic rather than realism. Adieu, my shiny, glitzy Hollywood. We’re heading into darker territory.

1945: The Lost Weekend [Never Seen]

This dramatization of an alcoholic’s descent into madness has been called the most depressing Best Picture winner to date. This hasn’t made me especially eager to see it. Eventually I might, if curiosity compels me.

1946: The Best Years of Our Lives [Good]

I can’t quite put this film in God-Tier, because It’s a Wonderful Life came out the same year and should, I believe, have won Best Picture. The triumph of Best Years at the Oscars may have owed a lot to the film’s timeliness — it tells the story of the difficulties of three veterans (Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell) to readjust to civilian life after the War — as well as Wonderful Life‘s dismal box office showing. Yet on its own merits, this film is very good indeed, well acted by all parties, including Myrna Loy as March’s patient but not passive wife, Virginia Mayo as Andrews’ shallow wife who loses all interest in him the minute she sees him in civilian clothes, and Teresa Wright as March and Loy’s sweet. smart daughter, toward whom the unhappy Andrews is drawn. Veteran Russell, who lost his hands in combat, earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as a young man with the same injury, and his scenes with Cathy O’Donnell, as his loyal fiancee who senses him pulling away from her, are both heartbreaking and (ultimately) heartwarming. The only problem, quality-wise, that I have with the movie is that it takes its own sweet time getting started. If you can make it through the first thirty minutes or so, your patience will be rewarded.

1947: Gentleman’s Agreement [Not for Me]

It’s with regret that I come at last to the first of the Best Picture winners I actively dislike. I’ve seen it once, and have no intention of ever seeing it again. The premise is strong — as research for an article on anti-Semitism, a journalist (Gregory Peck) pretends to be Jewish so he might experience the bigotry first-hand — and some of the performances are solid, including Peck, John Garfield as his best friend, and Celeste Holm as a glamorous, whip-smart magazine writer. But every bit of credit this movie earns is completely undone by an infuriating, shameful cop-out ending that I can’t discuss in detail without Spoilers. I can only tell you that it still makes me angry every time I think about it, even though it’s been more than two decades since I watched it. In all the years before or since, I can recall no other movie so utterly ruined by a conclusion that (although I can’t find positive proof) must surely have been studio-mandated. I include this article for the curious; its view of the movie is far more tolerant than mine, but it does go into detail about my problems with it.

1948: Hamlet [Never Seen]

Laurence Olivier was a gift to classic cinema, but this big-screen adaptation of what many consider Shakespeare’s greatest play is so heavily truncated that I’ve never felt the driving need to see it. Again, maybe one day.

1949: All the King’s Men [Okay]

I’ve seen this one, but I have clearer memories of the Robert Penn Warren novel on which it was based — a fictionalized account of the career of crooked Louisiana politician Huey Long, called Willie Stark in the novel and film — than I do of this movie. I don’t remember hating it especially, but it hasn’t stuck with me. Its fellow nominee, military drama Twelve O’Clock High, which features a stronger and more complex Gregory Peck performance than Gentleman’s Agreement, has made a far more lasting impact on me.

1950: All About Eve [Good]

Here I come to another Best Picture winner with a disappointing ending, though not (as with Gentleman’s Agreement) an infuriating, movie-ruining one. This cynical study of life in the theater, narrated by the deliciously cynical George Sanders as a poison-pen critic, tells the story of a renowned actress at the top of her game (Bette Davis) betrayed by an ambitious young upstart (Anne Baxter). Sanders, Davis, and Baxter are all superb, as are Celeste Holm, as a playwright’s wife and Davis’ best friend, and Thelma Ritter (who is never not amazing) as Davis’ dresser. In most respects, thanks not only to the performances but to the razor-sharp dialogue, the film hasn’t dated at all. Yet in one aspect, it’s sadly a product of its time: it asks you to accept that Davis’ marvelous diva Margo Channing, realizing that she’s getting on in years and soon won’t be able to play the leading roles she’s used to, would give up Broadway and happily settle down to a life of domestic bliss with the director she loves (Gary Merrill). Sorry. Not buying it. Margo the housewife wouldn’t be Margo at all; she’ll be the queen of a community theater group in less than a year.