In 1968, America was going through a massive upheaval culturally. We were transitioning. Where civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights were demanded throughout the 1960s, those movements would eventually spiral and fizzle out as America passed through the ’70s into the Ronald Reagan ’80s. It has always seemed like an odd fit, Oliver! winning Best Picture in 1968. It seemed odd because it was a throwback Dickensian musical about an orphan who becomes a pickpocket in 1830s London.
If you watch the opening ceremony for the 1969 Oscars, you’ll notice a couple of things. The first is they are announcing The Big Valley and The Joey Bishop Show will be postponed to present the Oscar ceremony. That tells you a lot about what people were watching on network television back then. The second is, of course, the nod to Oliver Twist with quaint pick-pockets crashing the Oscars.
What is also very clear is what kind of America the Academy, the film and television industry, aimed its content for. This would be what would be called the “Silent Majority” in just three short years, as the new President, Richard Nixon, who just barely won in a squeaker in ’68, would sail to his ratf*cked victory in 1972 in a massive landslide win, losing only Massachusetts. Politics and pop culture were polar opposites of what was happening on the streets with the hippies and the counter culture. That makes the 1969 Oscars in the video above seem oddly disconnected from the reality of the time.
That’s because the narrative that has survived is not the one of the established order, but rather those who sought to break it down and replace it with their culture. Politics and culture would continue to have to share the same bed for a while, as networks and studios were forced to appeal broadly, across America and especially the “flyover” states, probably until the country began to really start dividing itself. I put the beginning of that extreme polarization at Y2K. I could be wrong, but I think the perfect storm of the democratized internet, the 2000 election, the Wall Street bailout of 2008, the two wars in the Middle East are among the factors that eventually put America in two definitive camps: Left and Right.
In the breakup of the marriage between Left and Right, at least for a while, the Left got the culture and the Right got the politics. As the formerly scrappy hippies and counter-culture revolutionaries grew up, they bought houses, got married, raised families, and eventually rose up to become in the 1980s what they never were in 1969: the ruling class. They were the Baby Boomers who shaped culture in this country from film to literature to education to journalism to science.
They wrestled with the idea of “selling out” and becoming their parents, so a part of them always held on to their progressive values. This hybrid of wealth and activism would be embodied in iconic television shows like The West Wing, or the film The American President. Even Rod Lurie’s The Contender had some strains of activist liberalism shining through. That’s because Bill Clinton, who was president in the ’90s, really did embody that hybrid liberal — the marriage of activism and establishment. They still believed that they were, on some level, the “resistance,” because they did not have as much political power. That had been destroyed in 1968 and became definitive in 1980 when Reagan and Bush ruled the country for 12 years. But there is no doubt they dominated what would define culture in America ever since.
Then came the ultimate leader for the boomers and the millennials rising — President Obama, whose influence would be as deeply felt as JFK’s back in the 1960s. With Obama, as the culture was shifting through the ’90s came the idea of the Left as the virtuous side. For decades prior to that, the Left were the subversives, the counter culture, the rule-breakers, the side that fought for the “piss Christ” and Ken Russell movies. The virtue that rose up under Obama turned the once counter-culture Left into utopians, seeking a different kind of America. You know the rest. You’ve lived through it. You don’t need me to tell you how this all went down.
The whole thing has reversed itself, where the Left has become the very established order it once rebelled against. The Oscars have always been on the side of the established order, throughout their history anyway. One look at the Academy Museum gives you a pretty good idea of what that means. In reality, it might have looked more like that video above of the 1969 Oscars. But it doesn’t. It looks very much like the new Left, in the aftermath of the Obama presidency: diversity, equity, and inclusion front and center, with a few references here or there to movies that never dominated the Oscars, like Citizen Kane, Jaws, and the Wizard of Oz.
Oliver! was a film that lived outside the polarization of the country back in 1968. Imagine, the same year that RFK and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated, a musical about a plucky orphan won Best Picture. What does that tell you? Well, it tells you that the last thing they wanted to be in 1969 was political. They invited Sidney Poitier in their opener but quickly pivoted to Frank Sinatra crooning the audience. The next year, it was full-blown Bob Hope and John Wayne. You can see the conflict between culture and politics because the movies themselves reflected the rebellious spirit of the Left, while the show itself very much reflected Nixon’s America.
This version of the Oscars, with jokes told by Bob Hope, would very much appeal to a large majority in this country that feels alienated by how the Left has evolved and what it has become. The difference between then and now is simply that the institutional power has shifted. Thus, you would never see an Oscars ceremony, or any of the films nominated, reflecting any alternative viewpoints, or having any concern what the people in the “flyover states” thought.
So why does any of this matter? It matters because we’re moving through another kind of major shift right now. And that might be one of the best reasons for the ascent of Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, a movie that is not entirely different from how Oliver! managed to cut through the division and turmoil and win Best Picture as a movie almost everyone could agree upon.
Oliver! is a film that takes you to pain and sadness and then takes you through to happiness and relief. Belfast does the same thing. That is why it is touching people throughout the early festival season. If box office and money mattered in the Oscar race, I have no doubt that Belfast would make money. That’s because word of mouth will travel and eventually even people who feel excluded and alienated by the film industry and the Oscars of late will watch it.
The other films in the race that year weren’t exactly reflecting the political upheaval of the time:
The Lion in Winter
Romeo and Juliet
If you look at that list and you think about 1968, you can see just how insular they were then, similar to how they are now. They exist separately from what was happening on the streets. But this would change soon, as the very next year Midnight Cowboy would win Best Picture. This would signal the Academy’s most interesting period, the 1970s, where it became quite obvious culture was splitting from politics and the film industry was taking the side against what was happening in government. This period of subversive filmmaking remains dazzling, even now:
Five Easy Pieces
The French Connection
A Clockwork Orange
Fiddler on the Roof
The Last Picture Show
Nicholas and Alexandra
Cries and Whispers
A Touch of Class
The Godfather II
The Towering Inferno
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Dog Day Afternoon
All the President’s Men
Bound for Glory
The Goodbye Girl
The Turning Point
The Deer Hunter
Heaven Can Wait
An Unmarried Woman
Kramer vs. Kramer
All that Jazz
The Academy is probably never going to get anywhere near its glory days of the 1970s again. But, as I have just tried to explain, that’s because they need a system to rebel against and now they are the system. Now, it seems to be more about voting as a way to convey who they are and what they value. And funnily enough, that takes us back to where the Oscars were before the 1960s and 1970s counter-culture revolution. If you look at the films of the 1940s and 1950s, you’ll very much see a Best Picture lineup that reflects how the industry (then united with political power) wanted to reflect its idea of utopia.
It is hard to separate the films that are resonating right now with the hype around festival season. Publicists are very good at their jobs and they can make a movie seem like it’s resonating, even if it isn’t. It simply gets plugged into the awards machine and becomes a contender without ever being put in front of actual audiences or industry voters. It is, therefore, only possible to judge films that are resonating with the film community so far.
And that brings us all the way back full circle to what movies are going to resonate and why. Both Belfast and King Richard are no-brainers. They are unifying, warm-hearted stories about families. Both have their roots in real life. One is about the father of two of the world’s biggest tennis champions who defied the odds of living in a place where your choices were limited to fulfilling his greatest dreams for his daughters; and the other is the life of Kenneth Branagh, remembering the time his family had to leave their beloved homeland.
What will make Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog resonate, despite it being more hard-hitting than the previous two, is simply the power of Campion herself. It’s a comeback story about a promising female filmmaker who stopped making feature films at some point because she could not find studios willing to take risks with her. But Netflix did. The film itself is a Western of sorts, and that makes it stand out among many of the other offerings. The films I would worry about more this year are those that would appeal to, say, the Gothams or the Spirit Awards. I think the Oscars will go a different way. Look for films that are anchored to performances that will be headed into the acting races, like Spencer, Respect, and even maybe The Lost Daughter.
Now, we also have Dune, which has ignited the struggling box office and awakened the film fandom out of its COVID stupor. That pivotal film might have been The Last Duel, but that movie will likely need the HFPA or the larger industry voters to earn its proper place in the Oscar race (which it should, if enough people see it). The same goes for No Time to Die, which could end up in one of the ten slots this year.
In keeping with the themes I’ve just written about, I find it difficult to imagine Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story not resonating now. That film is going to have to come up against the strident activist coalition that is going to go in hard for it, but I predict and believe in an industry that will rise up in opposition to “cancel culture,” or this idea that the movie should not succeed because Twitter threw a fit. Or the idea that some newly adopted rules should prevent it, or Jon Chu’s In the Heights from being named the best films of 2021. I can see both of them continuing to resonate, especially since we have the more reasonable Golden Globes coming this year.
The reason I am holding onto In the Heights is that I think West Side Story will reignite what makes Lin-Manuel Miranda’s immigrant story so memorable. In the Heights, like King Richard and Belfast, exists as a universally appealing story about a place and a people who very much reflect the American dream. They feel universal to me, and not niche. I think that might end up being at least part of the puzzle.
Now, we have so many movies left to see. House of Gucci, Licorice Pizza, Don’t Look Up, and Nightmare Alley – these films might resonate and in so doing wipe the slate clean from festival season. Then again, maybe they won’t resonate as much. We have more time so there will be more discussions about the movies at hand.