The Best Picture Oscar Winners of the 1960s

Sunny Musicals, Gritty Themes, Sweeping Histories

Big musicals were the big Best Picture Oscar winners of the 1960s, along with tough social dramas and British historical and literary epics with wit and high style. It was a decade that brought forth both frothy entertainment and sharp social commentary, and fierce competition for Oscar’s top prize in every year.

The last classic black and white film to win Best Picture, The Apartment is a Billy Wilder masterpiece of bittersweet romance and a cynical take on corporate America, with a witty script. Jack Lemmon is utterly heartbreaking as an office schlub who falls for an elevator operator, and he leads a superb ensemble cast. The Apartment won out over religious chicanery in Elmer Gantry, gallant frontiersmen at The Alamo and dramas Sons and Lovers and The Sundowners. Snubbed for the nomination in a great year for movies were Psycho, Spartacus, The Entertainer and Inherit the Wind.

This affecting film of the immortal Broadway musical West Side Story, with lovely Natalie Wood in the lead and fiery Rita Moreno as her friend Anita, beat out the Guns of Navarone, the Hustler, Judgment at Nuremberg and Fanny. Among the movies Oscar failed to nominate for the top prize were Breakfast at Tiffany’s (which received a total of four other nominations), and two excellent, controversial films, A Raisin in the Sun (racism) and The Children’s Hour (homosexuality), which received no nominations in any category.

The sweeping epic of the English adventurer (a gorgeous Peter O’Toole with piercing blue eyes) won out over strong competition from my personal choice, To Kill a Mockingbird, a sad, sweet, searing memoir of racism and coming of age in the south. Lawrence of Arabia also bested the cheery, tuneful Music Man, the WWII epic The Longest Day, and Marlon Brando’s rebellious Mutiny on the Bounty. Snubbed were the Helen Keller biopic The Miracle Worker, the eerie, surreal Manchurian Candidate, and two addiction dramas, Days of Wine and Roses and Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

The funny, freewheeling, rollicking story of the randy English orphan took top honors in 1963, rolling over the big-budget disaster Cleopatra, the enduring classic How the West Was Won, religious and racial drama in The Lilies of the Field, and the largely forgotten America, America. Snubbed were Paul Newman’s amoral charmer in Hud, a re-pairing of Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in Irma La Douce, Hitchcock’s terrifying horror film The Birds, and the musical Bye, Bye Birdie with its diabolically catchy tunes.

The lavish screen adaptation of the lovely Lerner and Lowe musical with Audrey Hepburn at her luminous best beat out another sunny, singable and immortal musical: Julie Andrews as the magical nanny in Mary Poppins. My Fair Lady crushed the historical drama Becket and the lush movie of the successful novel, Zorba the Greek. It didn’t win, but at least the best black comedy of all time was nominated: Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Ignored in nominations for the top prize was Night of the Iguana.

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1965 Best Picture - The Sound of Music

Sound of Music
20th Century Fox

Oscar was in the mood for another big musical in 1965, when the adventures of the Von Trapp family singing and dancing their way out of Nazi-occupied Austria won. ​The Sound of Music successfully duked it out with the snowy Russian epic Dr. Zhivago and left another Julie Christie film, Darling, in its wake, along with drama Ship of Fools and drama/comedy/romance A Thousand Clowns. Skipped over were Nothing But a Man and Othello.

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1966 Best Picture - A Man For All Seasons

A Man for All Seasons
A Man for All Seasons. Columbia Pictures
The historical drama of one courageous man standing up against King Henry VIII’s desire for a divorce is a fine film, but A Man For All Seasons beat out the superior Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and the touching Cold War comedy The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming. It also defeated the war epic The Sand Pebbles and the cynical adventures of Michael Caine’s nasty, womanizing Alfie. Snubbed were A Man and a Woman, John Huston’s epic The Bible and Orson Welles’ much-honored, little-seen Chimes at Midnight.
In another year with a wealth of truly great movies, a drama of crime and racism in a small town, In the Heat of the Night, took the honors over the charming children’s musical Dr. Doolittle, wild, blood-soaked biopic Bonnie and Clyde, the racially-themed Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and the groundbreaking film that probably should have won, The Graduate. The academy failed to nominate the chilling In Cold Blood, another envelope-pushing film, as well as Camelot, Two For the Road and To Sir With Love.
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1968 Best Picture - Oliver

Oliver!. Columbia Pictures
Back to musicals for Oscar in 1968, with the somewhat unlikely win for Oliver!, the great big musical version of Dickens’ classic novel about a long-suffering British orphan. Oliver! beat out the earlier favored musical, Funny Girl, and the year’s big costume drama, The Lion in Winter. It also bested Rachel, Rachel and a lovely, lyrical version of Romeo and Juliet with then-unknown young stars. Ignored for the Best Picture nomination were War and Peace, the influential 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the original, hilarious, The Producers.
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1969 Best Picture - Midnight Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy
Midnight Cowboy. United Artists

Another boffo year rounded out the decade, with Midnight Cowboy, a gritty, heartbreaking story of a would-be gigolo winning out over such wonderful films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Anne of the Thousand Days, Hello, Dolly! and Z -- each an iconic movie in its own right. Snubbed films included the devastating movie about depression-era dance marathons, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, western musical Paint Your Wagon, motorcycle mayhem in The Wild Bunch, motorcycle drug weirdness in Easy Rider, and the epic Once Upon a Time in the West.