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Janet Leigh/Psycho VS Liz Taylor/Butterfield 8 at the Oscars in 1960


SPOILERS for Butterfield 8

For some years now, I have championed Psycho as the Hitchcock movie that really COULD have, and SHOULD have, won some major Oscars for Alfred Hitchcock. Best Picture and Best Director , to start. The winner in both categories for 1960 was Billy Wilder's The Apartment, which was a great movie, but not the kind of "unbeatable juggernaut" that Ben-Hur was in 1959 and West Side Story in 1961. If Psycho had been given the respect it deserved, it COULD have taken out The Apartment with Oscar voters.

The reality of the 1960 Oscars(held in 1961) was that while Hitchcock WAS nominated for Best Director for Psycho, the movie itself did not get a Best Picture nomination(which killed Hitchcock's chances.) Psycho got four Oscar nominations in all -- Hitchcock, Janet Leigh for Best Supporting Actress, and two in the fish-in-a-barrel "black and white categories"(Art Direction and Cinematography.) Psycho lost all of its nominations to The Apartment, save one: Janet Leigh as Best Supporting Actress lost to Shirley Jones in Elmer Gantry for what writer Stephen Rebello called her "abrupt about-face as a trollop" after Oklahoma and Carousel.

For this post, I'll ignore the egregious series of Oscar snubs that Psycho suffered(Picture! Perkins! Herrmann! Film Editing! Adapted Screenplay! Balsam!) and focus on Janet Leigh, who WAS nominated.

A formula I've offered for some years is: "Anthony Perkins should have been nominated, and won, for Best Actor -- and Janet Leigh should have been moved from the Best Supporting Actress column to the Best Actress column -- and won over Liz Taylor for Butterfield 8."

It made sense to me. This would allow "Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh" to be honored for the ages for their roles as the most famous psycho and the most famous victim in film history, and would take note of the fact that while Janet Leigh dies at the 47-49 minute mark in Psycho(it takes a couple of minutes to die!), she dominates all the scenes she is in at the "Best Actress" level. She has a LOT of screen time, far more than Anthony Hopkins had to win Best Actor for "Silence of the Lambs."

I based this assertion on the fact that Liz Taylor in Butterfield 8 was clearly inferior to Janet Leigh in Psycho, and that Butterfield 8 as a movie was inferior to Psycho as a movie.

One problem, though: I never saw Butterfield 8.

Until now. In the past few days. HBO Max had it so I was like, "oh, time to check out my theory after all these decades."

In a lifetime of movie-going and movie-watching, there have been the movies that I have ENTHUSIASTICALLY watched (Jaws and The Untouchables and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and the movies that I have DUTIFULLY watched -- certain Oscar bait, certain old-time classics. And finally, what I call "task movies."

Butterfield 8 is a "task movie." I watched it to get a sense of what Liz Taylor did right to get an Oscar in the year that Janet Leigh could not. I realize that I am not matching "apples to apples" here - Shirley Jones was Leigh's actual supporting actress competition - but for my theory to hold, Janet Leigh as Marion Crane needs to be Best Actress level.

I tell ya, in the beginning , I was a little worried. Butterfield 8 (henceforth, BU8) opens over a long, long take of Elizabeth Taylor(henceforth Liz) sleeping in bed, alone. I mean MINUTES of her sleeping -- one senses "Best Actress" concentration right there. And she awakens. Honestly I just saw this thing and I can't remember if she was supposed to be naked or was in her slip. Anyway, she awakens and finds a note from a man with $250. (Cut to: Laurence Harvey, getting on a "down elevator.") She scrawls in lipstick on the mirror: NO SALE.

That's good, Hitchcockian "pure cinema storytelling." 1960 "pushing the envelope" tradition: Liz has spent the night with a man. He has left money. She is rejecting it. So: "loose woman" or prostitute?

BU8 is very much one of those late Hays Code movies where the sexual aspects are front and center at all times, but in which nothing of sex is shown and -- crucially -- people get punished at the end FOR their sexuality. (Recall Dwight MacDonald writing of the shower scene: "There is a Hays Code morality to the shower scene: look what necking, thieving girls get.)

BU8 -- versus Psycho -- is also a plush and lush, widescreen Technicolor movie(Oscar nommed for its color cinematography), so it lacks that weird low-budget tackiness that makes Psycho so powerful.

I'll cut to the chase and say it: I found BU8 to be a bad movie, badly written(and I thought novelist John O'Hara was taken seriously -- is this HIS dialogue?), melodramatically overacted (not so much by Liz, but by everybody else) and far more interested in "the American moral norm" (the cheating man MUST return to his boring, sexless wife) than in exploring carnality.



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There are connections to Hitchcock and even to Psycho throughout:

Laurence Harvey took this 1960 film after he had been cast in the movie Hitchcock was ORIGINALLY going to make for 1960: No Bail for the Judge, with Audrey Hepburn and Harvey. But Hepburn bailed, the movie was cancelled. Hitchcock switched to Psycho. Harvey switched to this and --he's really awful in it. The cold snide snob that worked so well for his brainwashed killer in The Manchurian Candidate is here such a jerk that you can't see what Liz sees in him, seeing as she keeps rejecting his wealth as mattering.

The Psycho connections are minimal, but there. Liz takes a shower -- but its a one take from behind her and overhead.

Liz and Larry(Harvey) go to a motel. Quite a few times. And always for sex. There is even a nutty motel manager there -- Kay Medford(Babs Streisand's mom in Funny Girl), who tries to warn Liz off of her loose ways by stating that she used to be a sexy young party girl(100 divorces she caused!) but now she's just a middle-aged motel manager, really running a "brothel." One flashes to Arbogast coming to the Bates Motel and probably seeing it as a sexual place "on the natch"(that's why he suggests that Marion and Norman are shacking up.)

Actually, the Hitchcock movie that BU8 most reminded me of , would come 4 years later: Marnie. Liz keeps going to visit her widowed mother(Mildred Dunnock from The Trouble With Harry) and the dynamic feels like Marnie/Mrs. Edgar in reverse: Liz is loose, not frigid; her mother doesn't have a prostitute past. The Marnie connection is further made when -- at film's end -- Liz reveals the family-based sexual secret that evidently turned her into a nympho type.


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Liz reveals that secret --- molestation from her mother's boyfriend and "I liked it!" -- in a long Oscar-bait speech near the end.

Which raises the first problem for Janet Leigh. Liz's "molestation confession" is one of SEVERAL, "long, long long speeches" that she gets in BU8 and...well, that's catnip to the Oscar voters. Conversely, Hitchcock wasn't much to give his actors long meaty speeches (an exception is James Stewart at the end of Vertigo), so Janet Leigh -- at best -- only gets some good dialogue in the parlor scene where NORMAN gets the Oscar speech("Private traps" and its not THAT long.)

But the problem is this: Liz's long Oscar bait speeches in BU8 are really quite poorly written.

Watching BU8, I was struck by several things: Though Janet Leigh is considered "a big star who gets killed halfway through Psycho" -- Liz Taylor was clearly a BIGGER star...very much the anchor to BU8, the reason it was made, the sun among whom lesser acting lights orbit.

Speaking of which: Liz gives her Oscar bait molestation speech to an actor third billed above the title(after Liz and Larry): Eddie Fisher. Who was, famously, MR. Liz Taylor at the time, in her brief transit from mogul Mike Todd(killed in a plane crash) to Dick Burton. Seeing Liz and Eddie share the screen together is something else: she seems to overpower him from every angle: star charisma, sex appeal, acting ability -- even SIZE (she's big and voluptuous, he's scrawny.) Fisher is cast in the rather eunuch-like role of Liz's "brother figure," though he is given a fiancée(Susan Oliver) to escape to at the end. Its bizarre stunt casting - recall that Eddie had left wife Debbie Reynolds for Liz the Home Wrecker, and that's the role Liz is playing here with Larry Harvey.

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Indeed, Harvey gets a number of flat scenes with the actress Dina Merrill -- always so Patrician and dull despite her beauty -- and those are about "Keeping the Marriage Together Despite the Home Wrecker Trying to Break It Apart" -- which allowed Liz to flaunt her rep right there on the big screen -- with Lil' Eddie in tow.

Any scene with Dina Merrill in it in BU8 is dull, dull, dull, and wooden. These scenes remind me of how bad and old-fashioned movie making could be in 1960....THIS was the kind of movie that Psycho was blowing to smithereens. Though I will concede this: the opening scene in Psycho -- in which Sam and Marion discuss Sam's alimony and their thwarted marital desires -- has SOME of the stilted dialogue of the Dina Merrill scenes here. Psycho could not ENTIRELY ditch the kind of writing and acting(especially from John Gavin) that was part of its times.

A couple of more comparisons between Psycho and BU8:

ONE: At least one of the Butterfield 8 posters featured Liz Taylor in full slip showing her cleavage, just like Janet Leigh in a half slip and bra showing HER cleavage on the Psycho poster(with Perkins relegated to a smaller photo in the corner.). Tells you how movies were sold back then. Liz had already shown off this full slip look in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.. and she shows off her figure on screen in the slip here just as Janet did her thing in Psycho. As I recall, its Janet wearing a bra with midriff showing that was "historic."

TWO: "Da big SPOILER." Just like Janet Leigh in Psycho, Liz Taylor DIES in BU8. In a car crash(following a pretty good car chase with Larry in pursuit.) Its the "old fashioned ending" -- now Larry can go back to his wife and Liz's life of lust is at once punished and ended in mercy.

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One non-Psycho related aspect of BU8 that attracted me: it looks for all the world like an episode of Mad Men -- the New York City commuter train scenes, the trips to the bedroom communities and country homes - but Mad Men(ABOUT 1960) was written with 2007 depth and sophistication while BU8 -- actually MADE in 1960 -- paints with a much broader Hays Code brush.

This was brought home to me in one key scene: Larry Harvey, suffering deeply in his love for the loose Liz, is jokingly confronted by a small group of suited men in a NYC bar. None of them is as good looking or as fit as Larry, which makes it worse: the "leader" tells Larry: "Welcome to the club , friend. (Liz) has jumped from each of us to the next like a flea -- we meet once a year at Yankee Stadium." Ha. Well as Liz later says to her mother: "I was the slut of the year!"

1960. No getting that back.

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Edgy-for-its-time, sex-related humor almost inevitably dates terribly. What's 'edgy', what's 'over the edge', and so on is constantly changing on matters of sex. And the topic of sex is so multi-dimensional that it's entirely possible for any new edge to be both more permissive and more restrictive at the same time (i.e., in different dimensions). For this sort of reason, each time almost needs its own version of all previous times! Mad Men's 1960 makes more sense to us than 1960's version of 1960 does, ditto Greta Gerwig's version of Alcott's version of 1870 overtops Alcott's own, and so on. Period films always speak loudest to later generations about the time in which they were *made* not the period they're ostensibly *about or set in*.

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I've never seen BU8, but I seem to remember reading that Liz almost died from some affliction, prior to the movie, so "Oscar" was a sympathy gesture by the industry.
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I've never seen BU8, but I seem to remember reading that Liz almost died from some affliction, prior to the movie, so "Oscar" was a sympathy gesture by the industry.

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Hey, Gubbio!

Yes, that is very much the story of Liz's win. She had pneumonia and needed an emergency tracheotomy to breathe -- there is a small visible hole in her throat in photos of her on the Oscar stage.

Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment seems to have been Liz's main competition, and Billy Wilder wired MacLaine: "You don't have a hole in your neck, but you should have won" or something like that.

Evidently, Liz thought BU8 was a bad script, didn't want to make it, had to make it(under legal threat from MGM) and was somewhat embarrassed to win the Oscar for it. (Liz would get a good, "justifiable" win 6 years later for Virginia Woolf to set things right.)

This is simply a parlor game, but having actually seen Butterfield 8 now, and even accounting for Liz Taylor having a lot more screen time and lines to deliver than Janet Leigh in Psycho...I would STILL move Leigh up to the Best Actress category(bumping somebody out -- how about Deborah Kerr in The Sundowners) and I would STILL give Leigh the win over both Liz Taylor(in a bad movie) and Shirley MacLaine(in a good movie...but due for HER Oscar 23 years later in Terms of Endearment.)

Leigh gets better lines to say in Psycho and a more "human" character to play than Liz does in BU8. Leigh has to do a LOT of silent acting(behind the wheel of that car) and does it well. And Leigh is simply more sophisticated and controlled in her scenes in Psycho than Liz is in BU8. Not to mention -- Leigh's face on that bathroom floor in death is the stuff of hard acting AND unforgettable performance in screen history. "Leigh up to Best Actress and over Liz and Shirley for the win."

Alas..its only an "Oscar dream." And its over.


And I've finally seen Butterfield 8. And I never have to see it again. The task is completed.

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Side-bar: I have to put this in.

A very weird(to me) and somewhat sexually charged Hays Code-pushing moment in Butterfield 8:

Standing at the bar of a swanky NYC lounge, Laurence Harvey and Liz Taylor get into a snarling argument over her loose ways and his desire for her. He's in a suit, she's in a gorgeous cleavage baring black dress with pearls(her paid fashion "job" is to wear these clothes to various bars as a model -- helps her meet men.)

Liz moves to leave. Larry grabs her wrist and won't let go...and is hurting her.

Close-up: Liz's black high heel stabbing down into the top of Larry's polished black dress shoe. Each one's leg visible, a "glimpse of gorgeous gam" with Liz's foot.

This goes on for quite a few seconds -- cuts from Larry crushing Liz's wrist while her heel digs into his foot. I was thinking: "Well, those are foot doubles for Liz and Larry in the shoe close-ups, but they are ACTING WITH THEIR FEET. (Shades of QT.) Who will give in first? Liz or Larry? Its a tie. And a rather stylish, almost Hitchcockian(the close up on shoes) bit of SM kink that shows again how 1960 was a year of taboo breaking in Hollywood...up to a point.

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Close-up: Liz's black high heel stabbing down into the top of Larry's polished black dress shoe...bit of SM kink....1960 was a year of taboo breaking in Hollywood...up to a point.
Yes, the wheels of the production code were almost but not quite completely off by this period. Remember Liz Taylor had done 'Suddenly Last Summer' in 1959 which features all sorts of perversity as central points if you were at all capable of putting two and two together. My Mom (age 19) saw it in 1959 with her own mother and she always talked about how its profound weirdness disturbed her. But she at least had a gay best friend (and much later her brother would come out as gay) so understood most of it whereas her mother in fact had had literally *no clue* what was going on.

Relatedly, the biggest box-office hit of 1960, Spartacus even with the trims made for the original theatrical release has a number of code-breaking bits of violence and sexual innuendo. Tom Breihan, an often excellent writer in my view, uses Spartacus to launch his series on the biggest box office hits of each year since 1960 here:
https://film.avclub.com/our-new-column-on-hollywood-hits-launches-with-stanley-1834012710
He nicely observes many of the small moments in Spartacus that push the boundaries way beyond what Ben Hur had offered the previous year.

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Close-up: Liz's black high heel stabbing down into the top of Larry's polished black dress shoe...bit of SM kink....1960 was a year of taboo breaking in Hollywood...up to a point.

Yes, the wheels of the production code were almost but not quite completely off by this period.

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I think this is a reason I am so fascinated by that "50's/60's" cusp : everything was starting to give way...but not ALL the way yet. Indeed, when the R and X ratings arrived in 1968, the immediate attendant movies didn't seem to know what to do with them...innuendo and symbolism was no longer required, so the movies seemed to be more about their profanity and sexuality than their plots(I am thinking of movies that I never even saw, but read bout, like Secret Ceremony with Liz and Mia Farrow and Robert Mitchum; but also movies I eventually DID see The Detective with Frank Sinatra, and even Huston's Kremlin Letter.)


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Remember Liz Taylor had done 'Suddenly Last Summer' in 1959 which features all sorts of perversity as central points if you were at all capable of putting two and two together. My Mom (age 19) saw it in 1959 with her own mother and she always talked about how its profound weirdness disturbed her. But she at least had a gay best friend (and much later her brother would come out as gay) so understood most of it whereas her mother in fact had had literally *no clue* what was going on.

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This was a time of "discovery" I suppose, as "in the know" people might understand these types of movies better than more sheltered types.

Trivia: I found a 1960 newspaper print ad for Psycho that said "Makes Suddenly Last Summer look like a Sunday School picnic!" But I later found a newspaper print ad for Repulsion(1965) that said "Makes Psycho look like a Sunday school picnic." I guess the "Sunday School picnic" standard of horror was a big one in the 60's.

Trivia: Katherine Hepburn evidently was filmed to look even more wrinkled than usual as the "mad Mother" in Suddenly Last Summer , especially alongside Liz. At the end of production, Hepburn approached director Joe Mankewicz and said "have I finished all my scenes? Am I done on this picture?" Mank replied "yes" -- and Hepburn spit in his face. No wrap party , I guess.

I have seen Suddenly Last Summer and its perversities are apparent (as are the gay themes which, I contend, aren't of the same nature) but...it pulls its punches on violence and shock. Psycho "went there" -- with the shower scene and the staircase murder -- and did so with that "set piece cinematic pizazz" that I think took the movies to the next level: "drama" was eschwed in favor of "action" (both murders are "action scenes," especially the one on the staircase.) At the same time, Psycho lacks the "dialogue depth" of Tennessee Williams.

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Relatedly, the biggest box-office hit of 1960, Spartacus

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Uh oh. But I thought that Ben-Hur was the biggest box office hit of 1960(except it was released in late 1959.) Or Disney's Swiss Family Robinson(but that's a cheat, kids movies always rack up the biggest numbers.) Psycho always seems to come in at Number Two.

Even in this article about Spartacus! This is impossible. Psycho can't be Number Two to THREE number ones.

Ah, Hollywood numbers. I do know this: the very cheaply made Psycho had a HUGE profit margin(much of which went into Hitch's cpocket) . Also: Anthony Perkins himself in a 1961 interview said he had learned that Psycho was "the highest grossing black and white film of all time." That record may have held -- black and white didn't last much longer.

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(Spartacus), even with the trims made for the original theatrical release has a number of code-breaking bits of violence and sexual innuendo.

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Yes, it does. The restored cuts were pretty bloody -- Douglas chops off a man's arm in battle and blood pours everywhere; Olivier jams his knife into Woody Strode's neck and red blood(not Psycho chocolate syrup black blood) sprays on Olivier's face.

But even without those gory moments, Spartacus was pretty violent. And there is the scene in the gladiator school where the head teacher paints Kirk Douglas's bare torso with different color paints on parts of the body which vary in if a sword can maim(shoulder) or kill(heart) a man. Its a queasy scene to watch -- as is Douglas' eventually drowning of that boss man in a big kettle of soup!

Psycho has certain connections to certain other 1960 movies. The Apartment is one -- black and white, pushing the sexual boundaries, about "the little people" and their financial toil. But Spartacus is definitely another -- Psycho and Spartacus taken TOGETHER were BOTH advances in blood and violence in late Hays Code Hollywood.

The two movies overlapped in production on the Universal lot -- I wonder if Hitchcock and Kubrick ever met? -- and John Gavin appeared in both. (Years later, Gavin quipped "If I had known that both of them would be such classics, I would have paid more attention to what was going on when I was making them.")

Meanwhile, Marion Crane's husband(Tony Curtis) was in Spartacus -- I wonder if Leigh and Curtis ever visited each other?

AND: Michael Douglas said he was a teenager when he visited the Spartacus set -- and that he headed on over to watch the Psycho shower scene being edited as a "perk."


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Tom Breihan, an often excellent writer in my view, uses Spartacus to launch his series on the biggest box office hits of each year since 1960 here:
https://film.avclub.com/our-new-column-on-hollywood-hits-launches-with-stanley-1834012710
He nicely observes many of the small moments in Spartacus that push the boundaries way beyond what Ben Hur had offered the previous year.

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I have been reading that entire series -- it isn't done yet as the series marches on through the 2000s .

The series offers an interesting look at how the movie business has changed over the years because eventually , the Number Ones are simply "sequels and series chapters" like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and Batman.

Its those good ol' 70s, I think, where one finds the true blockbusters of individual personality and weight: The Godfather. Jaws. Star Wars. The Exorcist(and its neck-and-neck competitor The Sting.)

Those were the days. A surprise , though: I always thought that The Towering Inferno was the biggest hit of 1974, but evidently now Blazing Saddles holds that honor. Yet two more movies "we'll never see the likes of, again."

"On topic," Hitchcock had a great, steady, and high-earning career, but he only seems to have come close to the Number One movie twice -- Psycho and Rear Window. Others were in the Top Ten(I KNOW North by Northwest and Strangers on a Train; I'll GUESS Rebecca and Spellbound). Of course, more movies were released back then, it was harder to get into the Top Ten. And Hitchcock operated below the more expensive place where epics(Ben-Hur) and musicals(The Sound of Music) were made.

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Edgy-for-its-time, sex-related humor almost inevitably dates terribly. What's 'edgy', what's 'over the edge', and so on is constantly changing on matters of sex.

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I suppose so. Sexual matters had to be approached "indirectly" in so many Hays Code films -- like Bogie and Bacall in The Big Sleep talking about horse racing and even today the dialogue sounds downright dirty.

Actually, that's probably a SEXIER movie -- with a healthier attitude towards sex -- than Butterfield 8 with its more direct dialogue and characterizations.

Vertigo is a very sensual movie with a very big problem in my estimation - Novak holds up her end splendidly but -- yes, and I guess forever -- James Stewart just seems wrong for the other side; not simply "too old" (Bogie and Grant and Cooper were too old then, too; well, Bogie was DEAD) but...simply not a very sexy man. (I've read otherwise, I just don't see it in Vertigo.)

Meanwhile, Cary Grant smooching with Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief and Eva Marie Saint in NXNW...now we're talking! VERY sexy movies in my estimation, from the late Hays Code era.

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And the topic of sex is so multi-dimensional that it's entirely possible for any new edge to be both more permissive and more restrictive at the same time (i.e., in different dimensions).

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Well, things are so "fluid" today.

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For this sort of reason, each time almost needs its own version of all previous times!

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Yep. And that's likely almost a decade by decade thing. There is a 1960 Spartacus (with plenty of sex and violence for its time) but there is a Spartacus from cable TV (the 2000's maybe) that had all "the new look" cinematically and could dive deep on the gore and nudity.

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Mad Men's 1960 makes more sense to us than 1960's version of 1960 does,

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Endlessly fascinating to me about Mad Men. We have a LOT of "New York movies" in the late fifties/early 60's that cover Mad Men territory: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Best of Everything, From the Terrace, Butterfield 8...and of course North by Northwest for the first half hour (which Mad Men once honored by making Don Draper spend a night at Glen Cove police station...in Cary Grant's suit!)

And comedies: "Lover Come Back" is about advertising, and Rock Hudson, Doris Day and Tony Randall all match up with Mad Men characters(as does Edie Adams as a "different kind of Joan.") Boys Night Out is about four railway commuters(James Garner and three lesser guys) using a shared NYC apartment to try to "keep " Kim Novak.

Actually, Doris Day made a speciality of glamorous New York City tales in the 50's/60's cusp: Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, The Thrill of it All, That Touch of Mink, Send Me No Flowers -- ALL set(I think) in NYC and/or their commuter towns.

But Mad Men didn't work Doris' side of the street(except for Lover Come Back.) It was over there in "serious" Man in the Gray Flannel suit territory. John Cheever territory. (Though "The Swimmer" went there in 1968 and thus got to be more direct on matters sexual.)

The question is begged: given that the actual MOVIES of 1960 couldn't be as sophisticated with Mad Men plots...were the actual PEOPLE of 1960 as sophisticated?

The answer has gotta be: yes. We know of great novels written in the forties and fifties set in New York, with intelligent writing. "Da movies" were hamstrung by church-enforced innocence and (a tough reality), being targeted to a not-terribly-smart audience(or so thought Hollywood in making them)





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Around the time he made Spartacus, Stanley Kubrick offered a cutting thought(paraphrased): "I've met Hollywood creative people. I think that they WANT to make more intelligent movies, but they simply do not have the intellectual abilities to do that."

Ouch.

And not necessarily so. Spartacus and Ben-Hur have intelligent scripts. Gore Vidal worked on the latter. But as for the "Mad Men"-type 50's and 60s' movies: not so much. The Swimmer, maybe.

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