Fifty years ago, the 40th Academy Awards proved to be a watershed moment. The five Best Picture nominees — and eventual winner — all echoed the changing, turbulent times, not just in cinema but society, underscored by a tragedy that occurred the week before: Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
King’s April 4, 1968, assassination delayed the Oscars by two days, to April 10, and Gregory Peck, then-academy president, opened the show with remarks about the late civil rights activist and his impact.
“Society has always been reflected in its art and one measure of Dr. King’s influence on the society we live in is that of the five films nominated for Best Picture of the year, two dealt with subject of understanding between the races,” Peck said.
Those two films also both starred the No. 1 box office champ of the year, the first black Best Actor Oscar winner, Sidney Poitier (1963’s “Lilies of the Field”). They were against two envelope-pushing hits that still are influencing filmmakers today and only one nominee that is considered a traditional studio flick. And in a gratifying surprise, the big winner of the night was one of those race-themed films.
“In the Heat of the Night,” Norman Jewison’s murder mystery set in the deep segregated South, took home five awards: Best Picture, Best Actor for Rod Steiger, Best Adapted Screenplay for Stirling Silliphant, Best Sound and Best Editing for Hal Ashby, who would become one of the top directors of the 1970s. The film revolved around the contentious relationship between a racist Southern sheriff (Steiger), who is forced to work with Poitier’s proud, no-nonsense Philadelphia police detective, Virgil Tibbs (“They call me Mr. Tibbs!”).
Though the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964, the segregated South was not a safe place to shoot, so “Heat” was filmed in Sparta, Illinois. Still, the production ventured to a cotton plantation in Tennessee to shoot a pivotal scene, but the visit was cut short when Poitier received threats.
When Steiger received his Oscar, he told the audience: “I would like to thank Mr. Sidney Poitier for the pleasure of his friendship, which gave me the knowledge and understanding of prejudice in order to enhance this performance. Thank you and we shall overcome.”
Ironically, Poitier was not nominated for “In the Heat of the Night” or his other Best Picture contender, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” There’s been a lot of comparisons between the Stanley Kramer film, which earned 10 nominations and won two Oscars, and this year’s Best Picture nominee, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” Both revolve around young white women bringing home their African-American boyfriends to meet their liberal, wealthy parents. Of course, the end results are quite different.
Though “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” may seem tame today, the drama opened the door for interracial relationships depicted onscreen. And it was controversial. I remember seeing the film in a packed theater in San Mateo, California, and the audience gasping when Poitier and Katharine Houghton share a chaste kiss in the back of a taxi. While Poitier wasn’t nominated, Beah Richards, who was also in “In the Heat of the Night,” picked up a Best Supporting Actress nomination for playing his mother.
The box office hit won Best Actress for Katharine Hepburn and Best Original Score for William Rose. “Dinner” also marked the final screen appearance of Spencer Tracy and was Hepburn and Tracy’s ninth film together; he died just two weeks after filming was completed at the age of 67, adding an extra layer of gravity to his monologue about love.
The Best Picture nominees also reflected the changing mores and a seismic shift in audience taste, igniting the New Hollywood era of auteurism. Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate” was a sharp, brilliantly realized satire that altered the careers of its young stars Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross, who both received Oscar nominations, and the image of nominee Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson. And whenever you hear the world “plastics,” you can’t help but think of “The Graduate.” The box office champ of the year, the film earned seven nominations, winning Best Director for Nichols. It’s the last film to win just Best Director and no other Oscar.
Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” earned 10 nominations. Though some critics and audiences were turned off by this almost avant-garde retelling of the famed Depression-era robbers, teenagers and young adults flocked to the film, which also ushered in heightened violence onscreen. Though he had been in films since 1961, star and producer Warren Beatty became a major player with “Bonnie and Clyde” and the classic also turned Faye Dunaway, Estelle Parsons, who won Best Supporting Actress, and Gene Hackman into stars.
Besides Parsons’ victory, the film also won Best Cinematography for Burnett Guffey. Ironically, Dede Allen’s quite literally cutting-edge editing failed to earn a nomination.
The final best picture nominee went to the expensive musical/romance/fantasy “Doctor Dolittle,” starring Rex Harrison, Samantha Eggar and Anthony Newley. Though the film didn’t exactly burn up at the box office or please critics, it earned nine nominations and won Best Special Visual Effects and Best Original Song for Leslie Bricusse’s “Talk to the Animals.”
Other notable landmarks of that year include Quincy Jones, who also wrote the score for “In the Heat of the Night,” earning his first two Oscar nominations (Best Original Music Score for “In Cold Blood” and Best Original Song with lyricist Bob Russell for “The Eyes of Love” from “Banning); Norman Lear receiving his only Oscar nomination for his “Divorce American Style” screenplay, shared with Robert Kaufman; and the academy consolidating black-and-white and color categories into one each for cinematography, art direction and costume design (“Camelot” won the latter two). Alfred Hitchcock, who never won a competitive Oscar, received the Irving G. Thalberg Award, while Peck took home the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and the legendary composer and producer Arthur Freed (“Singin’ in the Rain”) won an honorary Oscar for “distinguished service to the Academy and the production of six top-rated Awards telecasts.”
After “In the Heat of the Night” producer Walter Mirisch finished his Best Picture acceptance speech, host Bob Hope closed the show with a serious, contemplative punctuation. “Clichés have been replaced. Films reflect the human condition,” he said. “The moguls share something with the man from Atlanta — they had a dream.”
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