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.


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