It was the year in which the Cannes Film Festival was abandoned and the Production Code that had set the tone for American cinema for 34 years was ditched in favour of a ratings system. Half a century has passed since nightmare horror emerged from the radiation from a Venus space probe and a bone tossed into the air transported audiences from the Dawn of Man into an interstellar future. Cinema Paradiso looks back at the events and movies of 1968 and invites you to sample films that not only capture the era in which they were made, but which have also stood the test of time.
A piece of screen history occurred at the 41st Academy Awards at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on 14 April 1969, as newcomer Barbra Streisand and veteran Katharine Hepburn tied for the Best Actress prize for their work as Fanny Brice and Eleanor of Aquitaine in William Wyler's Funny Girl and Anthony Harvey's The Lion in Winter. This was only the second time in Oscar history that an acting award had to be shared, as Wallace Beery and Fredric March had been acclaimed joint-winners for their respective performances in the title roles of King Vidor's The Champ and Rouben Mamoulian's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (both 1931).
In taking her second consecutive Oscar in this category - after Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) - Hepburn emulated the Austrian actress Luise Rainer, who had won two years in a row for Robert Z. Leonard's The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and Sidney Franklin's The Good Earth (1937). Moreover, Hepburn also matched the feat of her much-lamented partner, Spencer Tracy, who had died the previous year and who had been named Best Actor in successive years for Victor Fleming's Captains Courageous (1937) and Norman Taurog's Boys Town (1938).
There was also controversy in the Best Documentary Feature category, as Alexander Grasshoff's Young Americans was stripped of its victory after it was discovered that it had screened in October 1967. The Oscar went to Tom Skinner's Journey Into Self. Yet nobody questioned either Mel Brooks's Best Original Screenplay triumph or Gene Wilder's nomination for Best Supporting Actor as Leo Bloom, even though The Producers had premiered in Pittsburgh on 22 November 1967. The fact that the reception had been so negative and the studio had considered shelving what has since become a comedy classic seems to have blindsided the Academy.
Several familiar faces passed away during 1968, including silent stars Mae Marsh and Dorothy Gish, early sound stalwarts Kay Francis and Fay Bainter, and the stage legend Tallulah Bankhead, whose screen career never quite took off, in spite of a fine performance in Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944). One of the biggest stars of inter-war German cinema also died in July. But few suspected that the Lilian Harvey who ran a souvenir shop on the French Riviera was the glamorous star of a string of escapist musicals with pin-up Willy Fritsch. Born in Crouch End to an English mother and a German father, Harvey refused to sever her ties with her Jewish friends after the Nazis came to power and was monitored by the Gestapo after she returned from a brief stay in Hollywood. Indeed, her property was confiscated after she fled Germany in 1939 and she was stripped of her citizenship after she performed for French troops four years later. None of her films are currently available on DVD in this country, but the next time you watch Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009), listen out for Harvey singing 'Ich wollt ich wär ein Huhn' from Paul Martin's Glückskinder (1936).
A number of popular actors also made their final exits in 1968, among them Franchot Tone, Dan Duryea and Dennis O'Keefe. British comedian Tony Hancock committed suicide in Australia, while Roman Navarro (the star of the original Ben-Hur, 1925) was murdered during a break-in at his home and underrated character actor Albert Dekker succumbed to autoerotic asphyxiation. Among the notable film-makers to depart were French pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché, British dependable Anthony Asquith and Carl Theodor Dreyer, the Danish director whose austere spiritual dramas are more compelling than ever and who was working on a life of Jesus Christ when he died at the age of 79.
No one had more intriguing film projects fall through than Orson Welles. But, in 1968, he managed to complete his shortest feature, The Immortal Story, a cautionary tale set in 19th-century Macao that was adapted from a short story by Danish writer Karen Blixen. This was a good year for costume dramas, with Franco Zeffirelli garnering Best Picture and Best Director nominations for his stylishly audacious version of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Vanessa Redgrave earning a Best Actress nod for playing modern dancer Isadora Duncan in Karel Reitz's Isadora.
William Friedkin's period romp The Night They Raided Minsky's also recaptured a lost period in American entertainment. But, even though Hollywood was slow to react to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, as well as the protests sparked by the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam movements, the emphasis was firmly on the here and now in dramas like Ralph Nelson's Charly, a reworking of Daniel Keyes's novel, Flowers for Algernon, which earned Cliff Robertson the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of a man with learning difficulties whose IQ triples after a revolutionary surgical procedure.
The focus fell on female emancipation in Richard Lester's Petulia and Paul Newman's Rachel, Rachel, which saw him guide wife Joanna Woodward to a Best Actress nomination. But there was only so much freedom film-makers were allowed to depict and Robert Aldrich's The Killing of Sister George received one of the first X certificates issued in the United States because of its lesbian sex scene between Coral Browne and Susannah York. The British censor demanded the complete removal of this sequence, although James Trevelyan was less scandalised by either Jack Cardiff's The Girl on a Motorcycle and Peter Collinson's Up the Junction or a pair of Elizabeth Taylor collaborations with director Joseph Losey, even though Boom and Secret Ceremony dealt with adult themes.
As one might expect in this period, subtitled cinema had a greater latitude to consider contentious topics and Swede Vilgot Sjöman caused a sensation Stateside when I Am Curious (Yellow), his graphic exploration of social issues and sexual identity, sparked a fierce debate on freedom of speech on screen. His 1968 follow-up, I Am Curious (Blue), ruffled fewer feathers. But compatriot Ingmar Bergman produced two of his bleakest studies of the human condition in Hour of the Wolf and Shame. Italian Pier Paolo Pasolini similarly exposed the darker side of the psyche in Theorem, while the themes of repression, exploitation and violence came under further scrutiny in Cuban Humberto Solas's Lucia, suppressed Czech items like Jirí Menzel's Capricious Summer and Vojtech Jasný's All My Good Countrymen, and the Japanese duo of Shohei Imamura's Profound Desires of the Gods and Kaneto Shindo's Kuroneko.
The latter was a chilling ghost story and the supernatural was also in evidence in Spirits of the Dead, a triptych of tales retold from Edgar Allen Poe by Federico Fellini, Louis Malle and Roger Vadim, who was in more playful mode with wife Jane Fonda in Barbarella, a saucily trendy sci-fi romp that was adapted from a comic series by Jean-Claude Forest. Pulp had long played a crucial role in the nouvelle vague and François Truffaut based The Bride Wore Black on a hard-boiled revenge saga that Cornell Woolrich had written under the pseudonym William Irish. Claude Chabrol also followed the noir route in starring wife Stéphane Audran in Les Biches and The Unfaithful Wife. She won the Best Actress prize at Berlin for the former, while debuting director Maurice Pialat won the prestigious Prix Jean Vigo for Naked Childhood, an unflinching study of the foster care system that brought a new realism to French screen drama.
Truffaut was one of the film's producers, but the events surrounding the removal of curator Henri Langlois from the Cinémathèque Française and the cancellation of Cannes during the May Days put a strain on his friendship with Jean-Luc Godard, who took a break from creating a left-leaning anti-cinema in such outings as A Film Like Any Other to sit in on the Beggars Banquet sessions with The Rolling Stones in Sympathy for the Devil.
The year also saw Mick Jagger make his acting debut alongside James Fox in Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's simmering crime-meets-rock drama, Performance, although its release was delayed until 1970. Nevertheless, this was a banner year for musical films, with Steve Binder's Elvis: The Comeback Special, DA Pennebaker's Monterey Pop, George Dunning's Yellow Submarine and Bob Rafelson's trippy Monkees vehicle, Head, all departing radically from such traditional genre offerings as Francis Ford Coppola's Finian's Rainbow and Robert Wise's Star!, which respectively headlined Fred Astaire and Julie Andrews.
Yet, 1968's Best Picture winner was Carol Reed's Oliver!, a lavish adaptation of Lionel Bart's musicalisation of Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist that was mischievously lampooned by Michael Palin in the 'Every Sperm Is Sacred' routine in Terry Jones's Monty Python's Meaning of Life (1983). The year's top British comedy picture was Gerald Thomas's Carry On Up the Khyber, which relocated the North-West Frontier to Snowdonia. However, Hammer came up with a deliciously offbeat black comedy in the form of Roy Ward Baker's The Anniversary, which saw Bette Davis don a black eyepatch to play a malevolent matriarch making life miserable for her three sons.
This left-field spirit also infused Christian Marquand's Candy, Russ Meyer's Vixen and Brian De Palma's Greetings, which became the first film to receive an X certificate in giving Robert De Niro his first major role. A vague whiff of the permissive society pervaded Fielder Cook's Prudence and the Pill, which paired Deborah Kerr and David Niven. But Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda found themselves in more traditional sitcom territory in Melville Shavelson's Yours, Mine and Ours, while Sidney Poitier and Abbey Lincoln managed to trip through Daniel Mann's romcom, For Love of Ivy, without overtly mentioning the racial tensions dividing the nation.
Attitudes have changed considerably since Peter Sellers played an Indian actor quietly causing chaos in Blake Edwards's Tatiesque farce, The Party. But the duo would soon return to bumbling Frenchmen after Alan Arkin and Bud Yorkin struggled to tickle funny bones with Inspector Clouseau. By contrast, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau came close to comic perfection as chalk-and-cheese roommates Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison in Gene Saks's adaptation of Neil Simon's hit play, The Odd Couple.
Comedy vehicles of the four-wheeled variety stole the show in Ken Hughes's loose adaptation of Ian Fleming's novel, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Robert Stevenson's The Love Bug. The same director reteamed with Dean Jones for the second chunk of Disney family entertainment, Blackbeard's Ghost. which gave Peter Ustinov the chance to steal scenes for fun as the summoned spirit of the eponymous English pirate. Captain Edward Teach was a near-contemporary of Matthew Hopkins, who is played with urbane menace by Vincent Price in Michael Reeves's Witchfinder General, a Tigon release that would make a marvellous horror double bill with Hammer stalwart Terence Fisher's take on Dennis Wheatley's study of 1920s diabolism, The Devil Rides Out, which sees Christopher Lee cede the villainous role to Charles Gray.
Genre icon Boris Karloff took his last dramatic role as a horror movie star whose farewell appearance is disrupted by Tim O'Kelly's rampaging Vietnam veteran in Peter Bogdanovich's neo-noir, Targets. The mayhem is more darkly comedic in Noel Black's Pretty Poison and Richard Rush's Psych-Out, which capture the countercultural vibe in much the same way as Norman Jewison's determinedly trendy heist thriller, The Thomas Crown Affair, whose chic elegance contrasts with the high-octane dynamism of the car chase in the year's other Steve McQueen classic, Peter Yates's Bullitt.
This propulsive thriller makes for intriguing comparison with more conventional, but still compelling police procedurals like Richard Fleischer's The Boston Strangler, Don Siegel's Madigan, and the Gordon Douglas duo of The Detective and Lady in Cement, which both starred Frank Sinatra. The focus falls on the crooks, as Marlon Brando and his gang kidnap Pamela Franklin in Hubert Cornfield's The Night of the Following Day. But we're back on the side of right in Coogan's Bluff, the first of Clint Eastwood's five films with director Don Siegel, in which he plays an Arizona deputy sheriff having problems with a prisoner in New York.
This updating of a serviceable Western storyline proved the inspiration for the TV series, McCloud. But Eastwood was back in more familiar sagebrush territory in Ted Post's Hang 'Em High, which set a new opening weekend record for a United Artists film. This revisionist entry had more in common with Sergio Corbucci's allegorical Spaghetti gem, The Great Silence, than standard Hollywood fare like Andrew V. McLaglen's Bandolero! and Tom Gries's Will Penny, which respectively starred James Stewart and Charlton Heston. But, more importantly, it launched the Malpaso production company that continues to sponsor Eastwood's features, right up to The 15:17 to Paris and The Mule, which is currently being filmed in Georgia.
Eastwood teamed with Richard Burton for Brian G. Hutton's Where Eagles Dare, a tale of Second World War derring-do that was adapted from a novel by Alistair McLean. He also provided the source for John Sturges's Cold War actioner, Ice Station Zebra, and tensions in postwar Europe also informed Jack Gold's The Bofors Gun. John Boorman also focused on the psychological strain of being in uniform in teaming Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune in Hell in the Pacific, while Tony Richardson concentrated on the folly of conflict in recreating the turning point of the Crimean War in The Charge of the Light Brigade. But the ironic wit of this masterly military satire would have been lost on John Wayne, who joined forces with Ray Kellogg and Mervyn LeRoy to provide Hollywood's answer to the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive with the risibly gung-ho The Green Berets, which delighted patriots and infuriated liberals. How little things have changed in the intervening half century!