This is the third installment of Wells’s Awards Season-themed contributions.
Miriam E. Wells, Ph.D. Student, Department of History
Which film took away an Oscar for Best Picture in 1967? Did you guess the eternal college favorite, The Graduate? Maybe you thought it was the racially charged Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
Obviously this was a banner year for Sidney Poitier, who had leading roles in two films, despite persistent concerns about whether white audiences would accept lead black actors in major motion pictures. You might wonder how it was possible that Poitier did not get a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of either In the Heat of the Night’s Virgil Tibbs or for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’s Dr. John Prentice, Jr. Good grief, not even a Best Supporting Actor nomination! Thank goodness he at least had that 1963 Best Actor Award for Lilies of the Field sitting on his mantelpiece!
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was a little late on the scene to be truly influential in the Civil Rights Movement. It is obvious from Roger Ebert’s (albeit good) 1968 review of the film that audiences were already too sophisticated for the kind of story where the perfect black doctor wins over a liberal white family. He wrote that the film had “taken a controversial subject (interracial marriage) and insulated it with every trick in the Hollywood bag,” including “shameless schmaltz (the title song, so help me, advises folks to give a little, take a little, let your poor heart break a little, etc.).” Nevertheless, Ebert and audiences found it entertaining and likeable.
It is typical of Hollywood to broach controversial subjects long after they have been explored in literature, music, and sometimes even television. In retrospect, though, the film may have been timed perfectly for certain audiences in the United States. It was released just months after the landmark Supreme Court decision concerning Loving v. Virginia, which struck down anti-miscegenation laws in this country. While Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was calculated to move audiences in the direction of tolerance, it was In the Heat of the Night that more accurately portrayed America’s racial texture.
Sidney Poitier plays visiting detective Virgil Tibbs, and Rod Steiger racist police chief Bill Gillespie investigating a murder in a small Mississippi town. Perhaps the most memorable scene in the film is an exchange of slaps. Eric Endicott, a suspect in the investigation, slaps Tibbs for implying he was involved. Tibbs slaps him back immediately. When Endicott demands of Gillespie, “You saw it. Well, what are you gonna do about it?” Gillespie’s hesitant “I don’t know” is rich with conflicting emotions. Audiences—especially black audiences—were thrilled with Tibbs’s response.
In the Heat of the Night spawned two sequels and a popular 1980s television show, with Carroll O’Connor portraying a much more enlightened Police Chief Bill Gillespie. It is worth adding that Walter Mirisch (of the Mirisch Company) was responsible for the production of In the Heat of the Night. The Mirisch Company was known for allowing directors and writers remain true to their artistry. Unlike traditional producers, the company allowed them to take risks and rarely interfered with their decisions.
The Graduate did deserve some solid recognition—the film had better staying power than at least two of its competitors, Bonnie and Clyde and Doctor Dolittle. It features some iconic places, scenes, and lines: Benjamin Braddock driving the wrong way across the San Francisco Bay Bridge or Mr. McGuire advising Ben to get into “plastics.” But for those outside of the college milieu, the film’s themes can seem anywhere from dated to distasteful. However, The Graduate was not shafted at the 40th Academy Awards. Mike Nichols received the Oscar for Best Director that year, and this particular award appears to audiences like an “Alternate” Best Picture
The Oscars did overlook a very good film for that year: Wait Until Dark. Wait Until Dark is a suspenseful thriller in which Audrey Hepburn plays a resourceful blind woman trapped in her Montreal apartment with several con men. It was a more difficult role than that of Katherine Hepburn’s Christina Drayton in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It is clear the Academy wanted to atone for failing to reward Hepburn for her work in The Philadelphia Story and The African Queen, but audiences can always tell when a Best Actor Award is merely a consolation prize.
If you were in high school or college in 1967, you might have a few of the year’s soundtracks in your record collection. How about The Graduate’s soundtrack, featuring five iconic songs by Simon & Garfunkel? Quincy Jones received nominations for the In Cold Blood soundtrack and for a song in the long forgotten film Banning, but he ought to have been recognized for superb work on the soundtrack of In the Heat of the Night. Jones makes excellent use of Ray Charles, Glenn Campbell, and Roland Kirk, the blind Chicago flautist whose haunting sounds captured Jones’s need for “anger and loneliness” in the music. The Jungle Book and Casino Royale also produced some good soundtracks for 1967.
The year yielded a good crop of films. In the end, the Academy decided that In the Heat of the Night deserved the Award for Best Picture. It was right.
Verdict: In the Heat of the Night.