If you were me, then you would know that there is nothing more fun to do when you’re on a holiday break and all your friends have left the city to go spend Christmas with their families than think about what you would have voted for in past Oscar categories. That’s what Academy Rules is all about, only instead of limiting my thoughts to my head, I share them with you, dear reader. You know, in case you might be interested in a weird hypothetical world in which I rule what should win meaningless award statues. It’s fun, I swear! Anyway, this month, and in honor of the release of Walt Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks, I decided to look at the year Mary Poppins was nominated for Best Picture. Here are the nominees…
My Fair Lady
The big Oscar story of 1964, one that you might be familiar with, was the controversy surrounding the casting of the role of Eliza Doolittle. Opening in 1956 as a stage production, My Fair Lady set Broadway on fire. It was the biggest hit of its time, so its adaptation into a major motion picture was not a question. Jack L. Warner was the man with the rights, and he seemed like a big fan of the original show, since he hired Rex Harrison to reprise his Tony-winning role as Professor Henry Higgins. For the role of cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, though, he decided to replace a then unknown Julie Andrews (who had originated the role on stage) with international movie star Audrey Hepburn.
It makes sense that he would like to have big name to get people to the theaters (it worked mighty well when they recast the role of Blanche with Vivien Leigh for the adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire), but the Hepburn controversy gathered steam not only when fans started to complain in behalf of Andrews, but when it was revealed that Hepburn wasn’t allowed to do her own singing, but was dubbed by an uncredited Marni Nixon. As you would expect, the media tried to report on a feud between the two actresses, which consisted really of polite comments in which they complimented each other. Still, the narrative caught fire, and became a favorite Oscar story when not only was Hepburn not nominated for Lead Actress, but the award ended up going to Julie Andrews, who nabbed the lead role in another big screen musical: Mary Poppins.
Even if the Academy apparently wasn’t a big fan of Hepburn (who had already won an Oscar, by the way), they did love My Fair Lady as a whole, giving it eight awards including Best Picture and Lead Actor for Rex Harrison. The reason why I bring up the whole Hepburn vs. Andrews story, besides the fact that it is what people think about when they think about the Oscar class of ’64, is that Hepburn is perhaps the most important thing that colors my opinion on My Fair Lady. That is to say I am not a big fan of the film, and definitely not a fan of her performance.
Now, the whole dubbed-singing deal is not really a huge factor in my distaste for Hepburn’s Eliza. Almost every film musical has the actors pre-recording their tracks and lip-synching to them on set, which means there shouldn’t be a big difference whether or not Hepburn recorded her own tracks. On the other hand, if having the actress sing her own songs meant that she wouldn’t have given such a histrionic and over-the-top performance, well, then maybe they should have let the woman go to the recording studio. Lots of people whose opinion I value on matters of musicals (both on and off the stage) love My Fair Lady. If I’m being honest, I want to love it too, but I just can’t deal with this movie. Mostly because of Hepburn, whose performance in the first half consists mainly of screaming loudly in reaction to almost everything that is said to her. I know the movie needs to find Eliza’s initial accent and behavior very inelegant for the story to work, but this is taking it to the extreme. She just doesn’t feel like a human being to me.A number like “Just You Wait” lands flat thanks to consisting of nothing but Audrey Hepburn emoting like a silent movie star around Higgins’ house. It’s hard to believe the woman who starred in Roman Holiday and Breakfast at Tiffany’s could be so charmless.
Hepburn is a big problem, but the movie is not without merit. For starters, Rex Harrison is hugely enjoyable as Henry Higgins. Also, I really like some of the songs in the score, like “Wouldn’t It Be Lovely”, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time”. What really keeps me from enjoying My Fair Lady is its pacing. Everything, no matter how unimportant to the main plot, moves at a snail’s pace. The songs are separated by scenes of dialogue that go on for way too long. The whole thing just feels boring and airless.
Such are the coincidences in life that just a couple days after I managed to get my hands on a copy of Becket, legendary actor Peter O’Toole passed away at 81. Watching the movie, which I had never seen before, ended up being a lovely way to honor his death. In case you don’t know, Becket tells the story of the relationship between King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and his trusted friend Sir Thomas Becket (Richard Burton), whom the King gives the title of Archbishop of Canterbury in order to have stronger influence over the church only to find out Becket putting up much harder resistance than he had anticipated. I tend to think of the 1960s as a revolutionary and transitional era for cinema, one that starts with the innovations of the french new wave and ends with the arrival of new hollywood, but it is also the last glory decade for big-studio productions in the style of classic Hollywood. Becket is such a film. The kind of historical epic that young people tend to look at as stuffy old movies, and while it isn’t quite as good as the very best of that genre (A Man for All Seasons comes to mind), it is one solid movie.
Like most epics of the the time, it is shot on a glorious widescreen that shows off the sets and costumes (the film’s Bluray is absolutely beautiful). I call it an epic, but the movie is mostly made up of scenes of characters just talking to each other. That might sound as a diss, but even if the movie is directed in a very classical manner, it ends up being surprisingly dynamic and exciting in its formality. With contemporary directors’ overreliance on close-ups and shot/counter shot composition, we’ve come to the point where being able to see more than one character on the screen at the same time is a privilege. A privilege that Becket uses wonderfully, since most of the time, it is content (and rightfully so) to let its main actors do their thing. O’Toole gives one of his theatrical and charismatic performances as Henry, and Richard Burton is a cold-stone counterpart as Becket. Also, talk about homoerotic subtext in a movie about a King feeling betrayed by his best friend that includes a scene in which they ride their horses towards each other on a Norman beach, but that is a subject for a whole other conversation. If Becket isn’t extraordinary, it is certainly worth watching thanks to the talented actors that built such a strong relationship between these powerful men.
Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Moving on to the next nominee, it’s come time to make a confession. I don’t love Stanley Kubrick. It’s not that I don’t admire his work, but that I just don’t seem to love his movies. And so it goes that when it comes to Dr. Strangelove, I admire and respect it much more than I outright love it. The idea that Kubrick looked at the threat of nuclear annihilation and thought the only way to address it in a movie was to make a ridiculous comedy is delightful to me. It’s simply a genius idea. However, there are long passages of the movie that I just don’t find very funny. Some of it is more weird than amusing, and it’s precisely this inherent weirdness that makes me like it no matter what problems I may have with the film (which I have to say are not big problems). Just the fact that the movie exists is worthy of praise, that it managed to be nominated for Best Picture, is almost a miracle.
This is the moment in which I say how Mary Poppins is an amazing movie. This is not only nostalgia or childhood affinity speaking (although there might be some of that). Disney’s Mary Poppins is a masterpiece of family entertainment, an incredibly innovative movie and a fantastic musical. Julie Andrews has never been better. I love almost everything about it. I even find Dick Van Dyke’s ridiculous accent endearing. Looking back on 1964, I guess Mary Poppins might have been the most likely competitor to take the top Oscar from My Fair Lady. It received thirteen nominations, a distinction that it shared with only three other movies at the time, and I think it was the fact that it was a kids movie that kept it from winning, even if it was the superior nominee.
However, I can’t say Mary Poppins has gone unrewarded. It did win a number of Academy Awards, including Best Actress, Original Score, Original Song (for the Sherman brothers’ “Chim Chim Cher-ee”) and Visual Effects. Also, it has lived on to become one of the most beloved movies of all time and a true classic. One aspect that I wish had been rewarded in its time, though, is David Tomlinson’s performance as Mr. Banks. I think he shouldn’t only have nominated, but won the award for Supporting Actor. Everyone who’s seen the movie knows that the true heart and soul of Mary Poppins is Mr. Banks. Hell, Disney has even made a whole movie about that character’s importance!
Zorba the Greek
Finally, we get to the last of the nominees, Zorba the Greek, and let me tell you this one of those cases where last does equal least. In case you are not familiar with the movie, it’s the story of a stuffy englishman (Alan Bates) who travels to Crete and finds a magical man named Zorba (Anthony Quinn), who in his peculiar way of living teaches him to live life to the fullest. It’s a narrative type that I just can’t get behind. Like an earlier version of Life is Beautiful or Dead Poets Society, I find Quinn’s performance irritating and the script even more so. Every single one of his lines feel so precious and forcefully cute. But hey, there’s that wonderful score, so something good came out of this movie.
The conversation about all these movies aside, there’s something I have to say: if someone asks you what the best movie released in 1964 is, there is only one right answer, and it is Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. There’s a caveat, though, and it’s that the movie wasn’t really eligible for the Academy Awards until 1965, so it technically couldn’t have been nominated. Still, now you know what to answer if someone makes you such a question, and if you haven’t seen it, then what are you waiting for to relish in this musical masterpiece?
Did the Academy make the right choice?
Maybe I’m being a little too hard on My Fair Lady? Well, even then, there’s no question they didn’t make the right choice. George Cukor, who directed the film, had made some amazing work throughout his career (The Philadelphia Story, for example), so it’s nice that he got some Oscar recognition for his talent. At the same time, though, I could easily call My Fair Lady the least of the nominees (if it weren’t for Zorba putting up such a great fight for that title). Most cinephiles would instantly say Dr. Strangelove should have won this, and it would be nice for such a bizarre movie to be a Best Picture winner, but I have to admit my heart belongs to Mary Poppins in this battle. Call me out as a shameless Disney fan, but I think something really fantastic is going on in that movie. It belongs alongside The Wizard of Oz not only as one of the best family movies, but one of the best movies ever made period.