Wednesday 18 May 2022

Monolithic! (The Hugo cinema of 1969)

This blog post is the twelfth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.

Content Warning: This article contains references to sexual violence, both that which is depicted in these movies, and perpetrated by the director of one of those movies.

Spoiler Warning: This article contains plot details of 50-year-old movies.

2001: A Space Odyssey was the first science fiction movie to be shortlisted for the Academy Award for screenwriting. It was a crossover success drawing rave reviews from the mainstream press, with audiences lining up to see it. On its release, it was the first science fiction film in more than a decade to be one of the top-grossing movies of the year. The American Film Institute places it 22nd on their list of the greatest movies ever made.

To non-fans, the fact that 2001 won the Hugo Award
in 1969 might seem like gilding the lily.
(Image via Harvard Crimson)
But still, winning a Hugo Award seemed far from certain.

The movie had been highly anticipated within fandom, but reactions immediately after it was released in April 1968 were extremely harsh. Reviewing an advance screening of the movie for Science Fiction Times, Walter R. Cole opined “2001 probably will be considered for a Hugo nomination in 1969, but unfortunately it is a big disappointment and should not win.” Lester del Rey was filled with invective for the movie. And although he would later change his tune, Isaac Asimov initially panned Space Odyssey.

Despite this initial vitriol, the movie slowly found champions among fandom. One of the most prominent voices in debates over Best Dramatic Presentation Hugos Juanita Coulson, declared that no science fiction movie had ever filled her with such awe. The fanzine Double Bill proclaimed it to be the best science fiction movie ever made. Even reactionary fan Ted White reluctantly went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey having told Samuel R. Delaney that he fully expected and intended to loathe it, but came out of the theatre a convert: “There is little in this movie which will be new to SF fans; in precis it reads like a 1931 SF story: a moralistic travelog that ends upon an almost sermon-like moral” White wrote in Shangri-L’affaires “But it is effective … I was impressed. In spite of myself.”

Certainly, the movie divided our viewing group as few films ever had.

Given the polarity of opinions about A Space Odyssey, it was bound to be a contentious winner, and arguments continued about it for years. Notably a faction of younger fans were all-in for The Prisoner, while another faction was peeved that Star Trek had been left off the ballot altogether.

There are numerous intriguing omissions from the ballot that year. Planet of the Apes, which was a cultural phenomenon and kicked off one of the most successful science fiction film franchises of all time, was nowhere on the ballot

Possibly the most egregious omission in hindsight is Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero’s seminal and provocative classic. Though it has spawned numerous imitators, sequels, parodies, remakes, and rip-offs, this raw and visceral original has yet to be equaled. It’s tightly edited and enjoys a narrative momentum that distinguishes it from its contemporaries in SFF. The characters are quickly introduced, and they are thrown into a pressure cooker. The multipolar tensions in the group illuminate issues of race and class in ways that continue to resonate more than 50 years later. For at least one member of our cinema club, this movie deserved the Hugo Award most of all.
The movie that has possibly withstood the test of time
best of all is the low-budget Night of the Living Dead.
(Image via FilmComment)

Almost as notable an oversight is that after two years of Star Trek’s dominance, the show was shut out from the Hugo shortlist. Despite a common perception in 1969 that the show had jumped the shark, Star Trek had several worthy episodes that would have been eligible. These include The Enterprise Incident (air date September 27, 1968), The Immunity Syndrome (air date January 19, 1968), The Ultimate Computer (air date March 8, 1968), and The Tholian Web (air date November 15, 1968). Given the dominance of Trek the previous years, we were not too disappointed to see it off the ballot, though it is a shame that the late great Dorothy Fontana had to wait another 20 years to receive a Hugo Award.

The ballot as it stood hewed more to mainstream culture than to the fannish, which was unusual for that era of Hugo Awards. Between the five nominees, two of them were among the top-grossing movies of the year, another featured the most popular pop band in history, and another was an actor-focused drama and mainstream critical darling. Three of the shortlisted movies received trophies at that year’s Academy Awards: Ruth Gordon winning for Best Supporting Actress in Rosemary’s Baby; Charly getting best actor for Cliff Robertson; and 2001: A Space Odyssey being recognized for the best special effects.

Although Yellow Submarine is a visually compelling movie that’s livened by classic and enduring songs, it seemed to us the weakest of the nominated works. Despite the truly spectacular images, a thread-bare nonsensical plot, and the wittering banalities fobbed off as dialogue render long stretches of the movie almost unbearable. In retrospect, we would argue, this did not deserve consideration for a Hugo Award: it’s great as a sequence of music videos, but poor as fantasy or science fiction.

The Prisoner, which comes from the same “cool Britannia” moment of pop culture as Yellow Submarine, fares a lot better in the light of history. The concluding episode “Fall Out”, which made it onto the Hugo ballot, sums up the themes of the series nicely, and provides an emotional resolution to the question of whether or not Number Two can escape. Interestingly, both Yellow Submarine and The Prisoner: Fall Out use the song “All You Need Is Love” in their soundtracks. It’s used with sincerity in the Beatles movie, but with a twist of irony in The Prisoner. We would suggest that it is more effective in the latter.
Was Barbarella a good movie? Definitely not.
But it was visually compelling, and the focus
on female pleasure stands in sharp contrast to 
the violent and deeply troubling scenes in Charly.

is the first remake to have been shortlisted for the Hugo Award, having been previously on the ballot as the TV movie The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon in 1961, shortlisted as a novel, and having already won a Hugo as a short story Flowers For Algernon. In light of modern understandings of disabilities, this movie comes across as dated and condescending towards persons with Down’s Syndrome. And the scene in which the protagonist Charly Gordon tries to force himself on his teacher Alice is extremely problematic, especially in light of how this act of violence is framed as forgivable, and an expression of love. If we’d had our druthers, this movie would not have been a Hugo finalist.

It is impossible to talk about Rosemary’s Baby without addressing the later conduct of its director. Roman Polanski has admitted in court to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, and as such, his inclusion on this shortlist is a stain on the Hugo Awards. In fact, it is difficult to judge this movie without considering Polanski’s crimes, particularly given that the feminist themes in Rosemary’s Baby stand in stark contrast to the director’s personal life. While there is a scene in which sexual assault is depicted in this movie, it is framed much differently than in Charly. By showing the event from a female perspective, Rosemary’s Baby does not imply the act is anything other than horrific.

The whole movie can be read as a parable about how the patriarchy forces women into specific roles, and punishes those who confront conformity; and the horror of the final scene is that Rosemary ultimately gives in. This presents a significant question about how much a viewer should separate the art from the artist, or how much of a movie belongs to the director, rather than to the original novelist, or actors like Mia Farrow who gave an extraordinary performance, and accentuated the works feminist themes. In some ways, Rosemary's Baby might be more poignant these days than in 1969, and the fact that a predator created it makes it even more unsettling. It is a remarkably excellent movie on many levels and might have topped some of our ballots, though in light of his crimes, most of us would choose not to honour Polanski.

Revisiting 2001: A Space Odyssey in the context of contemporaneous screen science fiction highlights
As had become tradition, nobody
involved in the making of the
Best Dramatic Presentation winner
was on-hand to accept the award.
Well-known fan David Kyle
accepted the award on behalf
of the production.
(Photo by Jay Kay Klein
via Calisphere)

just how remarkable a movie it was. However, it remains just as polarizing. Some of the group could not get past how slow and ponderous it was, but all acknowledged the cinematography and immersive special effects were unlike anything that had been made to date. The special effects would not be equaled for almost a decade. Even such minor elements as the helmets on the spacesuits look light-years more believable than those from Marooned — a movie made a year later on an equivalent budget. The scope of the movie was huge but was made relatable through the slice-of-life-in-space scenes. Some go as far as to call it a masterpiece. Love it or loathe it, we could not deny its impact, both on science fiction and how mainstream audiences perceived the genre.

Screen science fiction and fantasy’s best and worst were on display at the 1969 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, and often within the same shortlisted work. Even more than previous years, the Hugo shortlist feels like a time capsule that both reflects a world that no longer exists and reminds us that, when it comes to gender-based violence, we’ve still got a ways to go.

1 comment:

  1. I have always thought that 1968 was the best year for Gente films in the 20th century. Yes some of these films are problematic but 2001, Rosemary's Baby, Charley, The Prisoner, and Planet of the Apes are all masterpieces. I never understand how anyone could find fault with 2001. However I think a case could be made that Dr. strange love and The Man in the White Suit- both nominated for screenplay- are science fiction.