As always, it’s a nightmare getting anywhere near Hollywood this weekend — especially with the bizarre torrential downpours we’ve been having for the past few days that I’m still not convinced isn’t an expensive high-tech publicity stunt by Paramount Studios to promote its upcoming Noah starring Russell Crowe. We’ll see if they’ll be able to remove the gigantic plastic tarp over the red carpet leading up to the Dolby Theater by the time the stars start arriving for the 86th Academy Awards in a few hours.

As everyone in this town obsesses over the imminent awards show (which we’ll be live-blogging later today on Cinephiled), let’s pop back half a century and see how different the event looked 50 years ago. In 1964, the 36th Academy Awards were held not in Hollywood, where the Oscars began at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel just a block away from their current home at the Dolby, but at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. At that time, the 3,000-seat building was a concert venue featuring artists such as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. A few months later it would be the site of the acclaimed concert film The T.A.M.I. Show featuring the Rolling Stones, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Beach Boys, James Brown, Chuck Berry and others. Keith Richards later said that choosing to follow James Brown on that stage was the biggest mistake the Rolling Stones ever made because no matter how well they performed, they could not top him.

jacklemmon-1964Actor Jack Lemmon was the host for the Oscar festivities, and given how beloved he is today, I’m surprised he didn’t go over too well that year. “The show keenly missed the services of Bob Hope,” the New York Times reported. “Jack Lemmon was woefully miscast as master of ceremonies and was also burdened with wretched gags, such as introducing Steve McQueen as President Johnson’s driving instructor and Tuesday Weld as a young lady with a ‘day all to herself.’” Bosley Crowther, longtime movie critic for the Times who attended the Academy Awards that night for the first time, was excited by the presence of filmmaker Federico Fellini (who won the Foreign Language Oscar for 8 1/2) and his actress wife Giulietta Massina, and took Lemmon to task for a bit of attempted comedy at their expense. Crowther criticized “the crude attempt that Jack Lemmon made as master of ceremonies on the television show to be funny by reading Italian names in a dialect. This was neither funny nor was it courteous. This sort of thing is not reflective of a new maturity in Hollywood.” It was Lemmon’s first time hosting the show alone although he shared the honor six years earlier with Bob Hope, David Niven, James Stewart and Rosalind Russell. Bob Hope, who first hosted the show in 1940, would take over again the following year and become the closest thing to a permanent host that the Academy ever had until he finally turned the reins over to Johnny Carson in 1979. But despite his very mixed reviews, Jack Lemmon host the show two more times: in another group outing in 1972 with Helen Hayes, Alan King and Sammy Davis, Jr., and a final solo gig in 1985.

maclaine-reynolds-1964With the exception of a few old-timers such as Edward G. Robinson who presented the writing awards (to John Osborne for Tom Jones and James R. Webb for How the West Was Won), Rita Hayworth who handed the Best Director Oscar to Tony Richardson for Tom Jones (she kept calling him Tony Richards), James Stewart who presented the awards for Best Cinematography (to the great James Wong Howe for the black-and-white Hud and Leon Shamroy for the color Cleopatra) and Frank Sinatra who doled out the Best Picture Award to the British Tom Jones, the presenters that night mostly represented the younger side of Hollywood. They included Shirley MacLaine, Debbie Reynolds, Steve McQueen, Patty Duke, Angie Dickinson, Anne Bancroft and Julie Andrews.

It was not a particularly memorable year for Best Song nominees. James Darren sang “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” from the film of the same name, Harve Presnell performed “So Little Time” from 55 Days at Peking, Italian singer Katyna Ranieri, recently heard on the soundtrack of the 2011 movie Drive, sang “More” from Mondo Cane, and Andy Williams performed two numbers: “Charade” from the Audrey Hepburn/Cary Grant film and the winning song of the evening, “Call Me Irresponsible” from Papa’s Delicate Condition.

While it won some of the top awards that night including Best Picture, Tom Jones didn’t win for any of its five acting nominations. It was the only film in the history of the Oscars to get three Best Supporting Actress nominations (for Diane Cilento, Edith Evans and Joyce Redman) but Margaret Rutherford won that prize for her fun performance in The V.I.Ps, a vehicle for Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton that was otherwise ignored. At 71, Rutherford became one of the oldest winners of that award. In the Best Supporting Actor race, Melvyn Douglas, another old-timer who’d been around the block a few times, took home the statue for his moving performance as Paul Newman’s father in Marvin Ritt’s Hud. Douglas would win again 15 years later for Being There.

In a move that shocked Hollywood, Patricia Neal won the Best Actress award for Hud despite the fact that she had a relatively small amount of screen time and many thought her role as the middle-aged housekeeper should have been nominated in the supporting category. I think Neal’s performance is key to the success of the film and I wouldn’t begrudge her the honor for a second. Unable to attend because she was eight months pregnant with her fourth child with writer Roald Dahl, French actress Annabella accepted Neal’s Oscar.

bancroft-poitierBut the biggest news at the 1964 Academy Awards was Sidney Poitier’s win for Lilies of the Field, beating the heavy favorite Albert Finney for Tom Jones, Paul Newman for Hud, Richard Harris for This Sporting Life, and Rex Harrison for Cleopatra and becoming the first African American to win a Best Actor Oscar. Poitier had become the first black Best Actor nominee five years earlier but his win on this night was considered groundbreaking. He was the first African American actor in any category to win since Hattie McDaniel received the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1939’s Gone With the Wind and it would take almost 40 years for any other African American actors to win the top prize again (Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won Best Actor and Best Actress at the 2002 Academy Awards). Anne Bancroft, the Best Actress winner the year before for The Miracle Worker, was thrilled that Poitier won and her enthusiasm in handing him the Oscar was noted with criticism by several southern newspapers. Remember this was a time when it was still illegal for black and white people to get married in many states.

sidneypoitier-backstageBackstage, a visibly moved Poitier remarked, “I would like to think it will help, but I don’t believe my Oscar will be a sort of magic wand that will wipe away restrictions of job opportunities for Negro actors in films.” Reporting on this comment, the Dallas Morning News wrote, “If the actor means that his prize should stimulate acting employment for other Negro actors, he is off his course.” Later on in the article, the writer said that “we endorse the Academy Award for Poitier, although he was not our first choice. He certainly was not our first objection, and if the Academy members wanted to recognize his high achievement in Lilies of the Field, they were within their rights and the canons of good taste and considered judgment.” Even the New York Times mentioned the brief hug between Poitier and Bancroft as well as another milestone that seems strange to read today: “In perhaps an equally significant manifestation of how Hollywood is responding to the changing times, Mr. Poitier was selected to serve earlier in the evening as one of the presenters in giving out awards.” Really? That was a big deal in 1964? I guess we shouldn’t forget that the country was still several months away from the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act, the hard-won law that finally put an end to racial segregation.

Bosley Crowther was surprised by Poitier’s win, but he was relieved that Tom Jones received the Best Picture award. “There had been a strong and disturbing current of prophecy going around last week that the community had tacitly decided the award should go to that good, patriotic, made-in-America razzle-dazzle How the West Was Won. Let us thank heaven it didn’t. Nothing could have damaged the prestige of the Academy Awards as recognition of merit more than such a pick.” That may be, but why the heck was Hud not even nominated for Best Picture?


As a whole, the New York Times wasn’t that hot on the 1964 telecast. “The annual reading of the Beverly Hills telephone directory apparently has a built-in tedium that no one can conquer,” reporter Jack Gould wrote. He further quipped that the gowns of the female stars looked as if they all came from the same shop and that “the glamorous presenters were rigidly policed in the matter of ad libs, which robbed the occasion of much informality or fun.” I wouldn’t be surprised if that same criticism is meted out by the Times tomorrow morning. Gould concluded his critique with the comment, “On its big night out, the Motion Picture Academy is rather like the average chap in white tie and tails — everything looks a little rented.”

But let’s leave 1964 on a high note by watching Sidney Poitier’s exciting win: