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.


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