In the 1960s, Hollywood began to loosen the Production Code that guided its content for over 30 years thanks to the threat of television and changing social mores. More and more, filmmakers were focusing on grittier character-driven films and by the end of the decade were catering to the youth counterculture that help given rise to the New Hollywood era of the 1970s. Occasionally old Hollywood pictures broke through, but there was little doubt that the times had changed. Here all all 10 Best Directors from the decade that saw the last gasps of classic Hollywood.
Nominated five times in the 1950s without a win, Billy Wilder started the next decade on the right foot with his second career Oscar for Best Director. Starring Jack Lemmon as a put-upon office drone and Shirley MacLaine as the paramour of his smarmy boss (Fred MacMurray) who uses his apartment for daytime trysts, The Apartment was a darkly cynical comedy that sparked controversy for nonchalance towards adultery and infidelity. Wilder’s classic was a big hit and earned him the award over Jules Dassin for Never on Sunday, Alfred Hitchcock for Psycho, Jack Cardiff for Sons and Lovers and Fred Zinnemann for The Sundowners.
Adapted from the smash 1957 Broadway musical, this reimagining of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set on the streets of 1950s New York City was a huge box office hit before sweeping the Academy Awards with a whopping 10 wins. Starring Natalie Wood as a Puerto Rican girl who falls in love for the leader (Russ Tamblyn) a rival street gang, West Side Story featured extraordinary musical numbers set to the memorable music by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. Directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins shared the Oscar for Best Director over J. Lee Thompson for The Guns of Navarone, Robert Rossen for The Hustler, Stanley Kramer for Judgment at Nuremberg and Federico Fellini for La Dolce Vita.
While there is no disputing the mastery behind The Bridge on the River Kwai, David Lean directed a singularly landmark epic with Lawrence of Arabia, a film so vast in scope and vision that it has to be ranked as one of the best ever made. Everything in this picture works, from the striking wide shots of the Sahara Desert and the tightly crafted script to Maurice Jarre’s stirring score and Peter O’Toole’s impassioned performances as the fascinating T.E. Lawrence. There really was little in the way for competition this particular year and Lean rightly won the Oscar over Frank Perry for David and Lisa, Pietro Germi for Divorce – Italian Style, Arthur Penn for The Miracle Worker and Robert Mulligan for To Kill a Mockingbird.
A widely hailed and popular comedy, Tony Richardson’s adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 18th century novel starred an exuberant Albert Finney as the titular Jones and became a landmark of British cinema. Because of its financial success, Tom Jones effectively put an end to an unusual movement in English filmmaking that celebrated an anti-commercial sentiment that fueled the British New Wave of the 1950s and early-1960s. Winner of four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Tom Jones earned Richardson the Oscar over Elia Kazan for America America, Otto Preminger for The Cardinal, Federico Fellini for 8-1/2 and Martin Ritt for Hud.
Despite a career full of extraordinary films, George Cukor earned his one and only Oscar for Best Director with this lavish musical that starred Audrey Hepburn as a working class girl who is transformed into an elegant and mannered woman. Based on the long-running hit Broadway production, My Fair Lady was a major box office hit and Cukor’s greatest triumph. Cukor won the Academy Award over stiff opposition that included Peter Glenville for Becket, Stanley Kubrick for Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Robert Stevenson for Mary Poppins and Michael Cacoyannis for Zorba the Greek.
By directing the film that supplanted Gone With the Wind as the highest-grossing film of all time, it was really no surprise that Robert Wise one his second career Oscar for directing one of the most popular movie musicals of all time. Starring Julie Andrews as Maria, a young nun fond of twirling and singing in the Austrian hills who is assigned to care for a family full of young brats, The Sound of Music was an uplifting and sentimental film released on the cusp of more troubled times to come. Wise took home Oscar over competition that included William Wyler for The Collector, John Schlesinger for Darling, David Lean for Doctor Zhivago, and Hiroshi Teshigahara for Woman in the Dunes.
A surprising box office hit, A Man for All Seasons starred Paul Scofield as English statesman, Sir Thomas More, who butts heads with Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) over the king’s desire to marry Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave) by sticking to his principles and in the process lose his own head. Fred Zinnemann deftly blended the verbal artistry of Robert Bolt’s original play with his own strong visual sense while directing great performances out of Scofield, Shaw and Orson Welles. This late-career triumph earned Zinnemann his second-ever Oscar as he beat out Michelangelo Antonioni for Blow-Up, Claude Lelouch for A Man and a Woman, Richard Brooks for The Professionals and Mike Nichols for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
By 1967, the old studio system was in its final throes as a new generation of filmmakers were given more leeway to experiment while trying to cater to the cultural revolution exploding around the country. Having been nominated the previous year for his directorial debut, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Mike Nichols won the Oscar for this coming-of-age sex comedy starring Dustin Hoffman as an aimless college graduate and Anne Bancroft as the middle-aged woman who seduces him despite his pending betrothal to her daughter (Katharine Ross). Drawing influence from European cinema, particularly the French New Wave, Nichols crafted a landmark film that spoke to the disillusioned counterculture youth and won Best Director over fellow nominees Arthur Penn for Bonnie and Clyde, Stanley Kramer for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Richard Brooks for In Cold Blood and Norman Jewison for In the Heat of the Night.
Carol Reed’s lighthearted romp that harkened back to the musicals of classic Hollywood’s heyday was widely hailed by critics on its way to becoming a big box office hit before winning six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Starring Mark Lester as the titular orphan, Reed’s interpretation of Charles Dickens’ famed novel deftly weaved dark undertones beneath its family friendly surface, though some of the book’s harsher elements were excised. Reed faced strong competition that year, but still won the Oscar over Gillo Pontecorvo for The Battle of Algiers, Anthony Harvey for The Lion in Winter, Franco Zeffirelli for Romeo and Juliet and Stanley Kubrick for his masterful sci-fi opus 2001: A Space Odyssey.
One of the classics of New Hollywood, John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy was an unforgiving look at the broken dreams of lives lived on the fringes of society. Starring Jon Voight as a Texas cowpoke turned wannabe New York City gigolo and Dustin Hoffman as his tubercular best friend, this searing drama became notorious for its explicit sexual content and earned a controversial X rating, making it the first such-rated film to ever win Best Picture. Schlesinger drew top-notch performances out of Hoffman and Voight, and struck a chord with an alienated youth. For his efforts, he won the Oscar for Best Director over Arthur Penn for Alice’s Restaurant, George Roy Hill for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Sydney Pollack for The Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Costa-Gavras for Z.