An Oscar Crop With An Instinct For Change Forty years ago, the best picture nominees signaled a stirring in Hollywood — an appetite for revolutionary realism, socially conscious stories and movies targeted at the long-ignored youth audience.

An Oscar Crop With An Instinct For Change

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


We've been spending part of this year remembering one of the most tumultuous years in our history: 1968, 40 years ago. It was the year of the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. It was the year of riots and anti-war protests. There were also cultural upheavals which were visible on the silver screen, and that's our subject in the latest report in our series, Echoes of 1968.

Here's NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg.

SUSAN STAMBERG: The 1968 Academy Awards ceremony was postponed for two days because of Martin Luther King's assassination. When the time came to name the Oscar winner for Best Picture, the list included films with lines that have lasted, lo, these many years.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Graduate")

Unidentified Man #1: I just want to say one word to you, just one word.

Mr. DUSTIN HOFFMAN (Actor): (as Benjamin Braddock) Yes, sir.

Unidentified Man #1: Are you listening?

Mr. HOFFMAN: (as Benjamin Braddock) Yes, I am.

Unidentified Man #1: Plastics.

STAMBERG: "The Graduate," directed by Mike Nichols, a film that defined a generation gap.

(Soundbite of movie, "Bonnie and Clyde")

Mr. WARREN BEATTY (Actor): (as Clyde Barrow) This here's Ms. Bonnie Parker.

Unidentified Man #2: Glad to meet you.

Mr. BEATTY: (as Clyde Barrow) I'm Clyde Barrow.

Unidentified Man #2: Clyde.

Mr. BEATTY: (as Clyde Barrow) We rob banks.

STAMBERG: "Bonnie and Clyde," directed by Arthur Penn, a folk tale of Depression-era robbery and bloodshed.

(Soundbite of movie, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?")

Ms. KATHERINE HOUGHTON (Actress): (as Joey Drayton) And it never occurred to me that I might fall in love with a Negro, but I did, and nothing in the world is going to change that.

STAMBERG: "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" directed by Stanley Kramer, interracial marriage in a liberal and patrician white family.

(Soundbite of movie, "In the Heat of the Night")

Mr. ROD STEIGER: (as Police Chief Bill Gillespie) Virgil? That's a funny name for a (censored) boy that comes from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?

Mr. SIDNEY POITIER (Actor): (as Virgil Tibbs) They call me Mr. Tibbs.

STAMBERG: "In the Heat of the Night," directed by Norman Jewison, about racial tensions and murder in a small Mississippi town. Oh yes, and this one:

(Soundbite of movie, "Dr. Doolittle")

Mr. REX HARRISON (Actor): (as Dr. Dolittle) It's incredible. It's impossible, but it's true. A man can talk to the animals.

STAMBERG: "Dr. Doolittle," directed by Richard Fleisher, about - ah, you know. And the Oscar went to "In the Heat of the Night." In many ways, the tamest film of the bunch. Other best picture nominees were hotter, bolder.

In a book about 60s movie making, Mark Harris says Hollywood then mostly meant World War II stories, Westerns and epics. So some of those new films were revolutionary.

Mr. MARK HARRIS (Author): I think the revolution was that movies finally started to catch up with what was going on in the culture at large.

STAMBERG: Civil rights were much on people's minds in the late 60s, more so than the Vietnam War, at least in movie theaters. And "Heat of the Night" was about race, as well as whodunit. But in his book, "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood," Mark Harris says the real competition that 1968 Oscar night was for the future of moviemaking.

Mr. HARRIS: I think there was a general sense that "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Graduate" were going to be more lasting achievements than "In the Heat of the Night," which was, I think, seen as a very skillful traditional Hollywood mystery with a good liberal message in it.

STAMBERG: "Bonnie and Clyde" was revolutionary, influenced by a new wave of gritty, realistic foreign films. Audiences fell in love with the gorgeous protagonists - Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway - playing Robin Hoods whose robbing ways end in a shockingly prolonged volley of bullets. Their first holdup is a farce.

Mr. HARRIS: They go into the bank and they say, it's a stickup. Nobody hears them. So they have to say it louder and get everybody's attention.

(Soundbite of movie, "Bonnie and Clyde")

Mr. BEATTY: (as Clyde Barrow) This here is a stickup.

Mr. HARRIS: Meanwhile, their inept getaway driver was trying to parallel park the getaway car. But when they come out of the bank with all the money to make their getaway, they don't know where he's parked.

(Soundbite of movie, "Bonnie and Clyde")

Ms. FAYE DUNAWAY (Actress): (as Bonnie) Clyde, where's the car?

STAMBERG: When they finally get into the car, you're laughing, then the bank manager jumps onto the rear windshield.

Mr. HARRIS: Clyde turns around and shoots him, and you see the bullet go through the windshield and the lens of his eyeglasses and his face explodes in blood.

STAMBERG: Bang, the laughter stops. The movie goes ugly and disoriented. Bang, a new kind of filmmaking.

Mark Harris says "The Graduate," another best picture nominee at the 1968 Oscar ceremonies, was revolutionary in several ways.

Mr. HARRIS: "The Graduate," perhaps more than any of the five movies, really did change things. Because, if nothing else, it was the biggest hit of the five. In fact, by the end of its run, which was, I think, two full years in theaters, it was the third-highest grossing movie in history.

STAMBERG: Upper middle class L.A., disaffected college grads seduced by older woman, falls in love with her daughter. Sure. But here's the revolution: the story is told from a new point of view.

Mr. HARRIS: Suddenly, the kind of camera had shifted and this was looking at the generation gap now from the other side of the generation gap, from the young side.

STAMBERG: And there's more. Young people race to see "The Graduate." Hollywood discovered a new audience.

Mr. HARRIS: And that was who movies started to get made for after that.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Graduate")

Mr. WILLIAM DANIELS: (as Mr. Braddock) Have you thought about graduate school?

Mr. HOFFMAN: (as Benjamin Braddock) No.

Mr. DANIELS: Would you mind telling me, then, what those four years of college were for? What was the point of all that hard work?

Mr. HOFFMAN: (as Benjamin Braddock) You got me.

(Soundbite of movie, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?")

Mr. SPENCER TRACY (Actor): Have you given any thought to the problems your children are going to have?

Mr. POITIER: Yes. And they'll have some.

STAMBERG: Sidney Poitier and Spencer Tracey in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"

(Soundbite of movie, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?")

Mr. TRACY: Is that the way Joey feels?

Mr. POITIER: She feels that every single one of our children will be president of the United States, and they'll all have colorful administrations.

STAMBERG: "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" almost didn't get made. Here's how the director's widow tells the story. Karen Kramer says Hollywood wasn't ready about a film about interracial marriage. The topic, in certain places in America then, was taboo and illegal and Stanley Kramer knew it.

Ms. KAREN KRAMER: He was afraid to tell Columbia Pictures what the subject matter was completely about, because, look, as an investment for Columbia Pictures, it can't play in 16 states in this country and it would cause riots. It's not a good investment for a studio. So he would tap dance his way out of giving them the screenplay.

And he'd said, look, I've got Spencer Tracy. I've got Katherine Hepburn. I've got Sidney Poitier, and it's a love story. Well, is it not a love story? It is a love story. But he didn't want to give them the script because he knew that they would have objections to it.

STAMBERG: Eventually, according to Karen Kramer, her husband had no choice. He handed over the script. The film was cancelled. Columbia claimed they were worried about Spencer Tracy's health. He'd been ill for many years. Stanley Kramer felt that was a cover. He had an idea. The director and his wife went to see Katherine Hepburn.

Ms. KRAMER: And he said, Kate, look it. I'm going to put up my salary as collateral for this film, and will you do the same? And she said, are you serious? He said, yes. And she said, I will, too.

STAMBERG: The film got made. Months before "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" was released, the Supreme Court said laws forbidding miscegenation were unconstitutional. And, Karen Kramer says, real life helped the film in another way.

Ms. KRAMER: Dean Rusk's - who was secretary of state in 1968 - daughter married another Stanford student who just happened to be black. It made the front page in every newspaper in this country.

(Soundbite of song, "Revolution 1")

THE BEATLES (Rock Band): You say you want a revolution…

STAMBERG: In the summer of 1968, the Beatles sang about revolution. But even before that, a revolution in movie-making was playing on the silver screens of America.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Revolution 1")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) You me that it's evolution, well, you know.

INSKEEP: You can find scenes from those Best Picture nominees at

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.