Tuesday, April 23, 2024

How “The Graduate” Won The Oscar For Best Director And Nothing Else

By Will Mavity 

When Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” was nominated for twelve Academy Awards on Oscar nomination morning, it exceeded most pundits’ wildest expectations. Not only did it secure nominations in obvious categories like Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Cinematography, it also landed surprise nominations in categories like Best Production Design and surprise double Best Supporting Actor nominations. Meanwhile, “Belfast,” the film many had pegged as the “The Power of the Dog’s” most significant threat, underperformed missing nominations for Caitriona Balfe in Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing. Nothing else overperformed. “King Richard” did not manage surprise nominations like Best Original Score or Best Supporting Actor for Jon Bernthal. “Licorice Pizza,” “Dune,” “Don’t Look Up,” and “West Side Story” got as many nominations as expected or fewer nominations than expected. “CODA” barely registered, only receiving nominations for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor. Surely, these were not the signs of a threat to win Best Picture.

After a season of triumphing at critic groups and other precursors, “The Power of the Dog” seemed slated for an easy Best Picture victory. Now the only question seemed to be, just how many Oscars could “The Power of the Dog” win? Indeed Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay were on the table. But how far could it go beyond that? With possible wins for Best Actor, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Score on the table, “The Power of the Dog” seemed poised to be the first big Best Picture category sweeper since “Slumdog Millionaire” won eight Oscars back in 2008. 

But nominations were announced in February. Oscar voting wasn’t until mid-March. And in that time, “The Power of the Dog” secured important campaign victories like the Directors Guild of America award for Best Director and the BAFTA and Critics Choice Awards for Best Film. But with each award, its total win count started looking smaller and smaller. Will Smith won SAG, CCA, and even BAFTA, all but guaranteeing him a Best Actor victory over Benedict Cumberbatch at the Oscars. “Dune” defeated “The Power of the Dog” for Best Cinematography at the BAFTAs and American Society of Cinematographer Awards despite an appealing narrative surrounding cinematographer Ari Wegner potentially becoming the first-ever female Best Cinematography Oscar winner. Jonny Greenwood’s “The Power of the Dog” score failed to secure any major victories. And it wasn’t just the “possible” categories where “The Power of the Dog” started slipping. “CODA’s” Troy Kotsur defeated Kodi Smith-McPhee for Best Supporting Actor at SAG, CCA, and then surprisingly at BAFTA as well, cementing himself as the Best Supporting Actor frontrunner. “The Power of the Dog” missed an Adapted Screenplay victory at the USC Scripter Awards, and then surprisingly, at BAFTA to “CODA,” who the BAFTAs had not even nominated for Best Film. “CODA” followed up its BAFTA win with a WGA victory (where “The Power of the Dog” was not eligible), cementing its frontrunner status in the category as we head into Oscar night tomorrow.

But at least, “The Power of the Dog” still felt secure in its status as the Best Picture frontrunner. And then came the Producers Guild Awards. As the only other organization to decide Best Picture winners via the same preferential balloting system as the Oscars, the PGA is a crucial barometer for whether a film is too divisive to win the Oscar under the same system. Losing there was the first sign of trouble for somewhat divisive films like “The Revenant,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri,” and “Roma.”

​“The Power of the Dog,” even with some rumblings in the background about it being divisive all season, seemed poised for an easy victory there. “Belfast,” “King Richard,” “Dune,” and “West Side Story” just didn’t have the momentum to defeat it. And “CODA” seemed to have passion after its SAG Ensemble win, but it only has three Oscar nominations, missing some crucial ones we Oscar pundits look for in a Best Picture winner. How could this be a Best Picture frontrunner with those numbers? The last time a film won Best Picture with fewer than four nominations was “Grand Hotel” back in 1932. And the last time a film won Best Picture with no below-the-line (technical) nominations was 1980’s “Ordinary People.” But “CODA” pulled off a win there, instantly establishing itself as a formidable threat to “The Power of the Dog” on Best Picture night. But if it won, surely it would also win Best Adapted Screenplay. Meaning, barring an upset in a category like Best Film Editing or Best Production Design, “The Power of the Dog” is looking at the possibility of winning Best Director and nothing else. However, doing so isn’t unprecedented. The last time any film walked away with only a Best Director Oscar win was 1967 when Mike Nichols did the same thing with “The Graduate.” Like “The Power of the Dog,” “The Graduate” was considered a sure-fire winner for Best Director, but like “The Power of the Dog,” many were skeptical that the film, which had garnered seven Oscar nominations, would go home otherwise entirely empty-handed, ensuring its status as a consistent piece of Oscar trivia. “The Graduate” was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. It had better chances of winning in some of those categories than others. But it somehow lost all but Best Director. 

There are significant differences between the 1967 Oscar race and the 2021 Oscar race. But maybe the outcome could be the same. In light of history potentially repeating itself, it is worth examining how exactly “The Graduate” managed to become the last film to win Best Director and absolutely nothing else and why the same thing might happen to Jane Campion tomorrow night.

Mike Nichols Jane Campion

Best Picture
1967 and 1968 were as tumultuous and transformative years as America had ever seen. Student protests, war, racial unrest, contested presidential primaries, and assassinations painted a picture of America at a crossroads. Hollywood was no exception. As the studio system crumbled and content restrictions relaxed, a new generation of filmmakers and movies began to redefine what cinema could be. And new young actors like Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and Jane Fonda presented a fresh kind of movie star with a new type of politics. Yet, many in Hollywood were members of the old guard, either avowedly conservative or once-proud liberals, now terrified of change; Hollywood’s 1967 output reflected a film industry at odds with itself.

So too did the box office. In 1966, the box-office top ten reflected an audience and a film industry content with traditional, squeaky-clean Religious epics like “The Bible” and Best Picture Winner “A Man for All Seasons.” However, in 1967, something was changing. In August, “Bonnie & Clyde” opened to mixed reviews, with many critics accusing the film of glorifying violence. The New York Times’s Bosley Crowther decried the film as “a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy…pointless as it is lacking in taste…it leaves an astonished critic wondering just what the purpose Mr. Penn and Mr. Beatty think they serve with this strangely antique, sentimental claptrap.”(1) as did Variety who labeled it “erratic,”(2) and Newsday who called it “repellant.”(3) Life magazine didn’t deem the film even worth reviewing at all. The negative reviews only seemed to inflame interest. Word of mouth was strong. Producer and star Warren Beatty led the public’s charge against out-of-touch critics, launching personal attacks against Crowther: “Because Crowther writes for the New York Times, he has influence all out of proportion to his importance. Out in the bush leagues, the theater owners, they read the times. For them, Crowther is God. Everybody in the world can like a movie, and if Crowther doesn’t, he kills it.”(4) The New York Times was bombarded with so many letters to the editor in response to Crowther’s review that they featured two full pages of blurbs, with some comparing Crowther to characters in George Orwell’s “1984.”(5) And box-office results, initially tepid, steadily increased week by week, as youth and progressives, feeling isolated and unsure in the midst of riots, military drafts, assassinations, and chaos saw themselves in the film. Time magazine shared a letter from a college student that stated, “Sir: Bonnie and Clyde is not a film for adults, and I believe much of its degradation has come from that fact. Adults are used to being entertained in theaters—coming out smiling and humming the title song…. The reason it was so silent, so horribly silent in the theater at the end of the film was because we liked Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, we identified with them, and their deaths made us realize that newspaper headlines are not so far removed from our quiet dorm rooms.”(6)

Critics did an about-face. Vincent Canby noted that Newsweek’s Joe Morgenstern, “in one of the most peculiar recantations to be seen outside Stalinist Russia first panned the film, only to return a week later to say, in effect, that he had shaken out the wood shavings.”(7) In October, Pauline Kael raved about the film and its impact on culture, stating, “Bonnie and Clyde brings into the almost frighteningly public world of movies things that people have been feeling and saying and writing about…for that group, there is an excitement in hearing its own private thoughts expressed out loud and in seeing something of its own sensibility become part of our common culture…”(8) By the end of the year, it had become “the most important movie event of 1967,”(9) and a genuine box-office hit. 

With its buzz and substantial box-office returns, “Bonnie and Clyde” looked to be a serious threat to win Best Picture. And it had the formidable might of Warner Bros behind it. But then, the equally controversial, youth-appealing “The Graduate” opened in December. Unlike “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate” was released by Embassy Pictures, a small studio. “The Graduate’s” script had been rejected by all of the major studios. At first, the studios seemed correct in their discretion. Pauline Kael, after beating the drum for “Bonnie and Clyde,” decried “The Graduate” as a “bad joke” and compared it to a “television commercial,”(10) while Time called it “derivative.”(11) However, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther stated in his review, “when the…prospects of an Oscar-worthy long shot coming through get progressively more dim…there sweeps ahead a film that is not only one of the best of the year but also one of the best seriocomic social satires we’ve had from Hollywood since Preston Sturges was making them.”(12) Roger Ebert praised the film’s “free spirit” and called it the “funniest American comedy of the year.”(13)

“The Graduate” exploded at the box office in December, capitalizing on students home from school and continuing into the new year.(14) It would stay at number one at the box office for months.(15) 48% of all movie tickets were now being purchased by moviegoers under 24(16), and they were all flocking to films like “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate.” Meanwhile, old school splashy family musicals like” Camelot,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” and “Doctor Dolittle” disappointed critically and financially. As Variety put it, “no big-budget roadshow earned better than mixed reviews.”(17)

With two very different kinds of films released in 1967– the young and hip and the old and traditional, awards season could go either way. As Bob Thomas of The Associated Press put it, “the major contenders appear to be films heavily weighted with violence and sex, not the sort of thing Academy voters are proud to endorse,” but lamented that the “big musicals” in the race were considered “empty and artless.”(18) Newsweek declared, “like the rest of the country today, Hollywood is in an unpredictably schizophrenic mood. The old guard struggles to hold on to values and traditions which it can understand…with so much uncertainty and no film a clear-cut popular or critical standout this year, the Oscar ceremonies are really going to be a reflection of which of Hollywood’s split personalities will emerge as dominant.”(19) In 1967, the average age of an Academy voter was over 50. The average age of a moviegoer was 25.(20) Bob Thomas described the 1967 field of Oscar contenders as “lackluster…the most undistinguished contest within recent memory.”(21) Variety lamented the absence of a “The Sound of Music” type contender, a clear frontrunner that everyone could rally around.(22) Block voting by each studio was no longer the norm.(23) In short, it was a free-for-all.

So who would guide Hollywood in making its choices? The critics. Variety stated that in this absence of a clear favorite, “most industryites are convinced that whatever wins the New York Film Critics Circle’s Award will at once become the frontrunner for the Oscar.”(24) Unlike the present glut of regional critics groups, 1967 just had the New York Film Critics and the newly-formed National Society of Film Critics. In addition, NBR, though not a critic organization, could be of some influence depending on what it chose. 

According to Variety, New York Film Critics were the kingmakers, dubbed “the conscience of Hollywood.”(25) Fifteen of their last twenty winners had gone on to win the Best Picture Oscar. The National Society Of Film Critics was a comparatively “young” organization, having just been founded the year before by magazine-based critics who had been denied admission to the newspaper critic-only NYFCC,(26) and thus had “less influence on the Oscars.”(27) However, according to Variety, if the same film won NYFCC and NSFC, “it will be viewed as unbeatable for the top Academy Award.”(28)

In a year full of crime and uncertainty, Associated Press’s Bob Thomas saw the main contenders as all crime related: “Bonnie & Clyde,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “In Cold Blood,” “Cool Hand Luke,” with “The Graduate” as the non-crime film with the best chance.(29) Thomas thought that New York-based critics, who were treating “Bonnie & Clyde” like “the greatest thing since Birth of a Nation” in his eyes, were likely to select it as the favorite, paving the way to Oscar victory.(30)

But again, not all Eastern critics worshiped “Bonnie & Clyde.” Bosley Crowther was the long-running chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle and had presided over its decision-making for years.(31) However, in November, in response to the backlash against his reviews of “Bonnie & Clyde,” the New York Times asked him to resign as Chief Movie Critic to make way for “someone who could look at movies from a fresh perspective.”(32) Crowther would be allowed to preside over one last New York Film Critics Circle awards ceremony as its chairman.(33) And he took advantage of this to have his revenge against “Bonnie & Clyde.” 

Crowther spearheaded a voting session for Best Film that lasted for six rounds of voting.(34) “Bonnie & Clyde” won the first round of voting but did so without a majority sufficient to finalize voting.(35) “In the Heat of the Night,” “Ulysses,” “The Graduate,” and “In Cold Blood” each also received votes on that first round.(36) Variety noted that “In the Heat of the Night” was the only film in contention at NYFCC that “has no relationship to the ‘new cinema’ that is so exciting to young people today.”(37) And indeed, “In the Heat of the Night,” which Variety described as “everybody’s second choice,”(38) only had three votes in the first round.(39)

Throughout the voting session, Crowther “argued passionately against awarding Best Picture to “Bonnie and Clyde.”(40) Though he approved of “The Graduate,” he threw his weight behind “In the Heat of the Night.” The film had opened at the end of a summer filled with racial unrest. Riots in Los Angeles and Detroit had filled the news daily. And as far as Crowther was concerned, “[In the Heat of the Night] does not imply that the state of prejudice and antagonism in the community is any different from where it was at the start. But it does suggest that a rapport between two totally antagonistic men may be reached in a state of interdependence. And that’s something to be showing so forcefully on the screen.”(41) It was a sentiment that some critics had echoed throughout the year: “Time magazine praised it for showing “that men can join hands out of fear and hatred and shape from base emotions something identifiable as a kind of love,”(42) and Life called it “a fine demonstration that races can work together.”(43) If “Bonnie and Clyde” could be relevant, couldn’t “In the Heat of the Night?” Of course, not all New York critics agreed: The New Yorker’s Penelope Gilliatt felt the film “has a spurious air of concern about the afflictions of the real America at the moment…. There is a predictable night interlude when the rivals suddenly come together and speak for a second of their common loneliness, thus tritely demonstrating that we are really all the same, though I can’t think of any really first-rate film, play, or book that isn’t unconsciously dedicated to the fact that we are all inconsolably different.”(44) Of course, Gilliatt was one of those critics who was not invited to vote with the New York Film Critics Circle and had run to the National Society of Film Critics, accordingly. 

By the time the sixth round of voting came around, “In the Heat of the Night” secured enough votes to defeat “Bonnie & Clyde,” who in turn was just ahead of “The Graduate.”(45) Not only did Crowther have his revenge by denying “Bonnie” Best Film, after another six rounds of voting, he ensured that Mike Nichols finally won Best Director over “Bonnie & Clyde’s” Arthur Penn.(46)

The National Society of Film Critics provided minimal clarification, selecting Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” as their own winner, although “Bonnie & Clyde” was runner-up.(47) The National Board of Review selected MGM’s stodgy “Far from the Madding Crowd” as its winner and did not include either “Bonnie and Clyde” or “In the Heat of the Night” in its Top 10 Films list. It did, however, include “The Graduate.”(48)

The Golden Globes were up next, but this year, they existed in a state of exile. NBC had just called for the Hollywood Foreign Press to institute internal reforms if it wanted the network

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Will Mavity
Will Mavityhttps://nextbestpicture.com
Loves Awards Season, analyzing stats & conducting interviews. Hollywood Critics Association Member.

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