Commentary: '67 was a groundbreaking year for films

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Sidney Poitier , Katharine Houghton, Katharine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Columbia

Jon Caroulis

is a writer in Philadelphia

The Academy Awards ceremony honoring the films of 1967 happened to be held the day after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was buried.

America was in the midst of a terrible year of upheaval, and Hollywood had managed to make four films conveying the vast social changes happening in the turbulent 1960s.

Those four films were nominated for best picture: The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and Bonnie and Clyde. Except for the fifth nominee, Dr. Doolittle, these films showed that Hollywood had come a long way. Just a few years prior it's unlikely the film community would have had the courage to make such movies.

And those four unique nominees won almost every major Oscar category that year.

I recently watched them, and was impressed to find that 50 years later they are still relevant.

Early in The Graduate, after Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) returns from college, he tells Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), "I'm just sort of disturbed about things."

"In general?" she asks.

"That's right," he replies.

Later, when Benjamin's father sees him loafing, he asks, "What was the point of all that hard work?"

Benjamin replies, "You got me."

Youthful rebellion is nothing new: Think James Dean. But The Graduate was different - rejection came from someone made for the system. Benjamin had all the advantages a young person could hope for; his parents even bought him an Alfa Romeo for a graduation present! What Benjamin lacked was faith and direction at a time when faith and direction seemed pointless.

By the way, the classic line "Plastics" is not in Charles Webb's novel. Either Buck Henry or Calder Willingham wrote it for the film.

The Graduate was nominated for seven Oscars, but took home only one, for Mike Nichols as best director.

Bonnie and Clyde was popular for the same reason gangster films in the 1930s were successful: The Depression made people question the American way, and created a mistrust of government and authority. James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart played antiheroes who were cheered when they got away with their crimes.

The Bonnie and Clyde of the film were antiheroes - violent ones - during a time when the war in Vietnam was tearing the country apart.

When he first saw the film, critic Roger Ebert wrote: "The fact that the story is set 35 years ago doesn't mean a thing. It had to be set sometime. But it was made now and it's about us."

Bonnie and Clyde was nominated for 10 Oscars, and won two.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner asked a question 50 years ago that some still grapple with today: Can interracial marriage be accepted?

The white father (Spencer Tracy) opposes his daughter marrying a black doctor (Sidney Poitier) because he fears the hate that she and her children will face. The white mother (Katharine Hepburn) notes that they raised their daughter to be tolerant, but didn't expect her to fall in love with a person of another race. She is, however, for the marriage.

The film's ending is pat, and the dialogue preachy and predictable - except for a speech that Beah Richards, who plays Poitier's mother, makes to Tracy. But it was one of the most important Hollywood films on race in its time. It might still also be relevant, in a time when we still seem to be asking, How far are whites prepared to go in accepting blacks?

The film was nominated for 10 Oscars, and won two, including Hepburn for best actress.

Poitier also starred in another of these highly acclaimed films of '67, In the Heat of the Night. He portrays Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia detective assisting a murder investigation in Mississippi. At first, Poitier is patient with the insults and slights he receives from locals, but finally has enough. At one point the police chief (Rod Steiger) asks, "What do they call you in Philadelphia?"

"They call me MR. Tibbs!" Poitier responded, and black audiences cheered.

The film was nominated for seven Oscars, and won five, including best actor for Steiger and best picture.

Critics of the time were surprised that Heat won the top prize. It was not as groundbreaking as The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde - those two examples of innovative filmmaking may have canceled each other out. But Heat was probably the first Hollywood film in which a black character was not only the equal of white characters, but in many ways superior. Even today that is rare, increasing Heat's impact in a social context, if not cinematically.

These movies and the acceptance of their controversial themes made it possible for Hollywood to make The Godfather, The French Connection, and countless cinema classics of the '70s, a legacy that continues this year with Moonlight, Fences, and other nominees.

At Oscar time, the motion-picture industry puts on its best face, recognizing serious, challenging, and controversial films. How would this quartet fare if they were made today? Probably they would be nominated for major Oscars again. At the very least, don't be surprised if they are recognized again this year in some form.

jon.caroulis@gmail.com