While it’s true that there are similarities between 1968 and 2016, there is no question that there was far more unrest and violence in the streets than now. What’s surprising, though, is how little has really changed since then. Donald Trump is trying to do what Nixon did — scare the silent majority out of their hiding places by rallying white evangelicals, white supremacists, and far-right conservatives who strongly oppose the ways they believe Obama has shaped this country. If he can draw them out, if he can scare them enough, he can beat the Obama coalition of the true middle class of America (not the privileged who were championing Sanders). Women, LGBTQ, Hispanic voters, and and anyone who is part of the changing landscape of this country. In 1968, Nixon ran on ending the war. He had sabotaged peace talks with the Vietcong, thus sinking LBJ’s chances of helping Democrats retaining the White House. Then, like now, Democrats were fractured after Bobby Kennedy was shot. The Civil Rights movement took a blow when Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. Eugene McCarthy was like the Bernie Sanders of the time — blowing up the Democratic party, which tried to hold itself together by putting in Hubert Humphrey to run against Nixon. It was a disastrous year for the Democrats. The Humphrey/Nixon race was very close – 43% to 42%. Had there been more Democratic unity, there is no question Democrats could have taken it.
The Oscars in 1968 took place on April 10, long before the events that defined 1968 began to take shape. To compare what might happen this year, we really have to look at the following year, the 1969 awards for the films released throughout 1968, to see how the most tumultuous year in recent American history impacted the Oscar race. In 1968, the films that were nominated for Best Picture very much reflected the time – In the Heat of the Night won Best Picture, with The Graduate taking Best Director. Of course, if you haven’t already, you must all read Mark Harris’ great book on this year, Pictures at a Revolution.
The very next year, however, things reversed dramatically. The five movies recognized for Best Picture were Oliver!, Funny Girl, The Lion in Winter, Rachel Rachel, and Romeo and Juliet. A strange lineup to follow what happened at the 1968 Oscars but one that might reflect how America resisted the dramatic change from political events after the deaths of so many leaders, after the violence, while a war began to escalate and bodies started coming home. What else could possibly explain such a shift in film culture?
In 1969 and for many decades that followed, films that did well at the Oscars did well at the box office. The movies nominated here reflect what was popular at the time. They do not, however, reflect the year that the ticket-buying public just lived through. The following year and through the next decade, American film and the Oscars would enjoy their best decade, but in 1969 you see a clear example of a shift backwards and away from controversy and straight back into escapism.
It’s worth noting that one of the best films ever made, 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968, but did not get a Best Picture nomination. You can bet it would have likely been nominated today, with nine and not five slots for nomination. That is really the key to differentiating 2016 from 1968 — there are more nomination slots.
Films about race relations/civil rights:
- Birth of a Nation – Nate Parker’s film about a slave uprising.
- Loving – a film about an interracial marriage that was illegal at the time.
- Fences – a film about surviving in the pre-Civil Rights America
And on the nostalgia side:
- La La Land – although not a period film, it nonetheless is a film that carries us away from the strife and horrors of daily life to a more serene place, which has always been an essential function of musicals.
- Rules Don’t Apply – Warren Beatty’s breezy romp through the life of a young actress Howard Hughes romanced.
- Allied – a love story set during World War II.
- HHhH – the story of a Nazi assassination during WWII.
And of course, its own genre, the central heroic/anti-heroic male protagonist, past or present:
- Sully – Sully saves the day by landing the plane.
- Silence – a film about religious persecution in the 17th century.
- Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk – a black comedy view of war heroism.
- War Machine – another anti-war film.
- Gold – men go into the Indonesian jungle looking for gold.
- Lion – an Indian man goes in search of his family..
The rare films about women that might crop up:
- Miss Sloane (Jessica Chastain)
- The Zookeeper’s Wife (Jessica Chastain)
- The Girl on the Train (Emily Blunt)
- The Secret Scripture (Jessica Chastain, Vanessa Redgrave)
- Passengers (Jennifer Lawrence)
The bottom line is this: how will the events of our year — terrorism, police shootings, and a very divisive political election — impact the Oscar race? So far, we know of only one really strong applied pressure at the moment and that’s that both the acting and directing branches are essentially “on notice” not to obliterate the strong black voices and subject matter coming up in film as they did last year.
We don’t know which way things are going. We are living through a day by day, moment by moment thing and when November hits, we’ll either be stuck with Trump or we’ll have elected the first woman as President of the United States. Either pick is bound to influence how the Oscar race goes.
Herewith, pointless projections with no basis in anything except what’s on paper:
Best Picture – Most promising *not yet seen
- LaLa Land*
- Miss Sloane*
- War Machine*
- The Girl on the Train*
- Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk*
- Birth of a Nation
- Loving Manchester by the Sea
- Midnight Special
- Queen of Katwe*
- Viola Davis, Fences*
- Emma Stone, LaLa Land*
- Emily Blunt, Girl on the Train*
- Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane*
- Ruth Negga, Loving
- Amy Adams, Arrival*
- Passengers, Jennifer Lawrence*
- Rebecca Hall, Christine*
- Nate Parker, Birth of a Nation
- Andrew Garfield, Silence
- Tom Hanks, Sully
- Joe Alwyn, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
- Brad Pitt, War Machine
- Denzel Washington, Fences
- Joel Edgerton, Loving
- Logan Lerman, Indignation
Honestly, I’m having such a hard time with the formatting of this post I have been working with it all day (long story) so I’ll just post this as is but next time, we’ll be tackling original and adapted screenplay, along with the supporting characters. But just to close, I always thought it was strange that the year after 1968, the Academy went for Oliver! as Best Picture. Yes, it’s a wonderful musical and all, but it — and all five Best Picture nominees — seemed to suggest such a muted response from the public and industry that could only mean they were likely terrified and were clinging to what was comfortable and familiar. I wonder what kind of year this will be and how it will all shake down. Be safe.