By Ann Silverthorn
When thinking of the 1960s, many associate those years with free love, psychedelics, protests, integration, and war. For those living through those years, movie theaters provided respite from the disturbing images that appeared nightly on television screens listing the number of casualties each day in Vietnam.
The Academy Award winners of the 1960s did not include films about the Vietnam War, even though at least a dozen were released during that decade. To the Hollywood’s credit, however, many winning nominees addressed important social issues. And the World Wars had not been forgotten, recalled in Lawrence of Arabia and Judgment at Nuremberg.
The 1960 Academy Awards honored a beloved figure from World War II, Anne Frank. In its subdued and intimate way, The Diary of Anne Frank reveals the cruelty and beauty that occurred in an attic during the Nazi regime, and the film received eight nominations and won three awards, including best supporting actress for Shelley Winters.
A graphic depiction of persecution and courage plays out in Spartacus, which depicts enslavement and gladiators in ancient Rome. Peter Ustinov won the best supporting actor award in 1961 for his portrayal of gladiator school owner, whose student, Spartacus, leads an uprising against the Roman Empire. This followed epic Ben-Hur’s Best Picture win the previous year. That film told the Roman oppression story from a Jewish/Christian angle and Charlton Heston, in the title role, won for best actor.
West Side Story, depicting a modern, mid-century social strata, nearly swept its 11 nominations, including Best Picture, at the 1962 ceremonies. Taking place in 1957 New York City, two rival gangs, American and Puerto Rican, rumble over turf, pride, and women, with tragic consequences.
Small towns aren’t immune to complex social issues, and To Kill a Mockingbird brought to life Harper Lee’s best-selling novel. Gregory Peck won for best actor in 1963 for his portrayal of a lawyer defending a wrongly accused African-American man. In doing so, he also has to man to try to help his young daughter make sense of the world’s humanity shortcomings.
A film depicting oppression, which never quite made it into our daily dialogue is America, America, directed by Elia Kazan. It won in 1964 for best black-and-white art direction. America, America tells the story of Kazan’s uncle, a Greek minority living in Turkey, who desires a better life, which seems like it should be in the United States.
Also wanting a better life was cockney Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, the Best Picture winner in 1965. Eliza’s rise to posing as a duchess is filled with challenges and sometimes comical moments. Surprisingly, Audrey Hepburn wasn’t nominated for her role as Eliza, but she did get to present the Oscar to her co-star, Rex Harrison, who won for best actor.
The mid-sixties were good years for Julie Andrews. She had just won for best actress in 1965 for Mary Poppins and would also forever be associated with The Sound of Music, which won Best Picture in 1966. The musical, set in Nazi Austria, won four other Oscars, and although Andrews was nominated for best actress again, she did not take one home for her role as Maria.
The legendary Elizabeth Taylor won Best Actress in 1967 for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Her husband, Richard Burton, played her under-achieving college professor spouse and was nominated, but did not win Best Actor. “Liz and Dick” were practically newlyweds when they made Woolf, but they convincingly played a long-married, volatile couple that reveals devastating details of its relationship to a young, seemingly happy couple.
The 1960s marked a good cinematic decade for Sidney Poitier, Bahamian-American actor and World War II veteran. In 1964, he was the first-ever black actor to win a Best Actor Oscar for his role in Lilies of the Field. The following year, he played a black man who befriends a blind white girl in A Patch of Blue, for which Shelley Winters won Best Supporting Actress. But it was in 1968, that Poitier played major roles in two Oscar-winning films (receiving no nominations). In the Heat of the Night won Best Picture that year and, in it, Poitier played a Philadelphia detective on special assignment in the South, where he encounters prejudice because of his race. The second film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, won for best writing in story and screenplay, and Katharine Hepburn took home the Best Actress Oscar.
At the end of the decade, several memorable movies took home Academy Awards. One would think that 2001: A Space Odyssey would have walked away with an armful, but it won for best visual effects only. The Best Picture winner at the 1969 ceremonies was actually Oliver!, based on Charles Dickens’ classic novel Oliver Twist. It received a dozen nominations and six wins, including Ron Moody’s Best Actor. That year, Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl) and Katherine Hepburn (The Lion in Winter) tied as Best Actress. Ruth Gordon won Best Supporting Actress for Rosemary’s Baby. From ancient times to far in the future, the films of the 1960s covered a wide variety of subjects and social issues, setting the stage for more such explorations in the 1970s.