How the Oscars Got Groovy

On April 14, 1969, Gregory Peck strode across a deserted hall of Los Angeles’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion like a weary cowboy crossing a prairie. He had become the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences two years earlier, and his job was to introduce the Forty-first Academy Awards. On camera, Peck descended a mirrored staircase in the atrium, looked around, with his thick eyebrows furrowed, and announced in his deep voice, “It’s kind of lonesome out here. The audience is already on the inside.”

The most nominated films that year were the splashy studio musicals “Oliver!” and “Funny Girl,” whose twenty-six-year-old star, Barbra Streisand, showed up to the ceremony in a see-through pants suit. In an effort to make the Oscar broadcast less lugubrious, Peck had hired the stage director Gower Champion. In place of Bob Hope, hosting duties were shared by “Oscar’s best friends,” among them Ingrid Bergman, Sidney Poitier, Burt Lancaster, and, for the youth market, Jane Fonda, her short hair waved for her role in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”

When Bergman opened the Best Actress envelope, she found a shocker: Streisand had tied with Katharine Hepburn, for “The Lion in Winter.” Because Hepburn was absent, Streisand had no chance of being upstaged. She cooed to her statuette, “Hello, gorgeous!” “Oliver!” won five awards. Several months earlier, the M.P.A.A. had instituted a new ratings system, replacing the old Production Code after three and a half decades. “Oliver!” was rated G, designating it as the kind of wholesome studio entertainment that could be enjoyed by “general audiences,” whoever those were. But a closer look revealed another Hollywood—and a more unconventional kind of movie—clawing at the gates. “Rosemary’s Baby” was nominated only for its screenplay, by Roman Polanski, and for the performance of Ruth Gordon, who won Best Supporting Actress. Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” had managed four nominations, Best Picture not among them, and won for special effects—the only Oscar that Kubrick would ever receive. And sitting next to Streisand was her estranged husband, the little-known Elliott Gould, wearing the droopy mustache he had grown for Robert Altman’s “M*A*S*H.”

After the awards, congratulations on a smashing show poured into Peck’s Academy mailbox (along with a few complaints that it was “too far out”). “At a time when the morals within movies are being pushed to the outer edges of chaos,” Vincent Canby wrote in the Times, awards for films such as “Oliver!” “reassure everyone in the industry that all is well, that Hollywood really isn’t some giant bordello that’s about to be raided.”

He spoke too soon. A year later, Gould would be nominated for a movie about wife-swapping, Fonda would hold up a fist on the red carpet, hippie garb would turn the Oscar stage psychedelic, and the winner of the Best Picture award would be rated X.

Barbra Streisand’s pants suit caused a stir at the Forty-first Academy Awards.Photograph by Ron Galella / Getty 

Photograph from Bettmann / Getty

If Hollywood had arrived late to the sixties, the Academy arrived even later. “The Graduate” and “Bonnie and Clyde” made the Best Picture cut in 1968, but both lost to the Sidney Poitier drama “In the Heat of the Night,” one of Hollywood’s belated acknowledgments of the civil-rights movement. The next year, the thirty-six-year-old Paramount executive Peter Bart watched “Rosemary’s Baby” lose the adapted-screenplay award to “The Lion in Winter.” “I was by far the youngest person in the audience,” he said. On the eve of the forty-first awards, the Times mocked the Academy for its byzantine membership procedure, “a trying ritual that rivals finding a cheap apartment in Manhattan,” noting that its three-thousand-odd voting body was “heavily weighted with older people, many of whom are no longer very active in the film business.” The nominations proved the point. As Variety observed, the “Over-50 demographic age characteristics of Academy members was brought sharply home with lack of a best picture nomination for ‘2001,’ this year’s youth fave.”

If anyone could lead the Academy out of obsolescence, reincarnating it like “2001” ’s Star Child, it would have to be someone who understood what the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll generation was looking for. Yet the job had fallen to a square-jawed fifty-three-year-old whom most of America thought of as Dad: Gregory Peck.

Peck had arrived in Hollywood in 1943, a former rower with the clean-cut handsomeness to match. He could be stalwart to the point of being stiff, but, with the war depleting Hollywood of leading men, his robustness had appeal. In the nineteen-forties, he was nominated for Best Actor three years in a row, for “The Keys of the Kingdom,” “The Yearling,” and “Gentleman’s Agreement,” which won Best Picture. In the last, he played a Gentile journalist who poses as Jewish to expose antisemitism, a role that chimed with his offscreen liberalism. In 1950, he was nominated a fourth time, for the war drama “Twelve O’Clock High.” Onscreen and off, he exemplified the reasonable man who takes a principled stand. But it wasn’t until he was forty-six that he found the role that burnished his legend: Atticus Finch, in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” From behind round spectacles, Atticus embodied the citizen hero, the gentle father, the fair-minded dissenter. “In that film,” Harper Lee said, “the man and the part met.”

Lee gave Peck a gold watch and chain that had belonged to her late father, the model for Atticus, and he carried it with him to the Academy Awards on April 8, 1963, where he finally won Best Actor. The moral glow of Atticus Finch propelled Peck to a new role as civic figurehead. The next year, he was elected to the Academy’s board of governors. Unlike Ronald Reagan, Peck declined to run for political office, instead becoming Hollywood’s unofficial mayor—Reagan’s liberal shadow. In June, 1967, he was elected Academy president.

Peck’s role as Hollywood’s liberal ambassador came at a cost to his acting career. In the first month of 1969, Lyndon Johnson awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, calling him a “humanitarian to whom Americans are deeply indebted.” Three days later, Vincent Canby panned Peck’s new film, “The Stalking Moon,” writing, “Peck is so grave and earnest it seems he must be thinking about his duties on the board of the American Film Institute, rather than on survival.” Children who were eleven in 1962, when they first saw Peck as Atticus Finch, were now burning their draft cards. They didn’t want a father figure; they wanted rebellion.

Peck wasn’t blind to the sea change. “Film turns young people on like nothing else,” he said in 1968, predicting an “American New Wave,” brought on by such directors as Mike Nichols and Francis Ford Coppola. Where Peck belonged in that future was uncertain. Splitting his time between a Brentwood mansion and a house in the South of France, he preferred Trollope to Philip Roth.

Peck entered 1969 pulled in different directions. His son Stephen had received his draft card and joined the Marine Corps. “He was very patriotic, my dad, even though he was against the war,” Stephen recalled. “He stoically said, ‘Well, you gotta do what you gotta do.’ And off I went.” In the spring of 1969, Stephen shipped out to Da Nang, where his father sent him boxes of Dickens and Brontë.

At the Academy, Peck was putting out fires. He had received “some bruising comments” about the Oscar telecast, he wrote to a friend, “especially about Barbra Streisand’s derriere.” The efforts to jazz up the broadcast had failed to halt a ratings slump. As in recent years, when the #OscarsSoWhite scandal cast a harsh light on the Academy’s sclerosis, the swiftly changing times were rendering the Oscars irrelevant. Peck had to do something bold to bring the Academy up to date. He had already commissioned a study of the membership rolls, with the idea of demoting administrators and P.R. people to non-voting status. Then he got a nudge from an unlikely source: the twenty-two-year-old starlet Candice Bergen.

Candice Bergen at Truman Capote’s 1966 Black and White Ball at the Plaza, with a mink bunny mask by Halston.Photograph by Elliott Erwitt / Magnum

In 1967, Bergen had returned to Los Angeles after nearly two years of jet-setting, making films in France and Greece, going along on pheasant shoots, and liaising with an Austrian count. She had the statuesque beauty of a Nordic deity, with silky blond hair and a tapered nose that ended in elegantly flared nostrils. Her wardrobe was stocked with Dior and Hermès, and her style fell somewhere between Holly Golightly and Princess Grace.

But the L.A. she came back to was unrecognizable. “Men in page-boy haircuts preened, ruffled and jeweled, lurching in high-heeled buckled boots, fashionably foppish,” she wrote in her memoir “Knock Wood,” “while women’s heads were shorn: they were more eyelashes than hair, peering out from under the spiky black thatch shading each eye and trying to look like Twiggy, their patron saint.” In New York, Bergen had attended Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball at the Plaza, wearing a mink bunny mask loaned to her by Halston. As she swanned among the crowd, a Women’s Wear Daily reporter asked her: Wasn’t it inappropriate to be hobnobbing at a ball while war was raging in Vietnam?

“Oh, honestly,” Bergen sniffed in her bunny ears.

Back home in Los Angeles, she prepared for her twenty-first birthday, sending out invitations to “mourn the passing of my youth” to guests who included Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant. This was the world she knew: the world of her father, the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, whose fame had come courtesy of his top-hatted wooden alter ego, Charlie McCarthy. When Candice was born, in 1946, the press called her “Charlie’s sister.” In her father’s office, she would gaze at his special Oscar, awarded in 1938—made of wood, with a movable mouth.

Now that Candy had broken through as a Revlon model and a star of “The Group,” the film Sidney Lumet made from the Mary McCarthy novel, her fame eclipsed Edgar’s—the “father of Charlie McCarthy” was now the “father of Candice Bergen.” The sixties had rendered him prehistoric; now Edgar and Charlie were reduced to performing at county fairs. But it wasn’t as if Candy were especially up with the times. “Evidently the Sweet Bird of Youth had passed me by like a Boeing,” she recalled, “and I found myself, at twenty-one, peering at the generation gap like a tourist—from the far side.”

One night, Bergen went to a party in Benedict Canyon in her Dior lounge pajamas. Inside the house, she smelled burning sandalwood. Janis Joplin’s voice blasted from the sound system. The women wore moccasins; the guys were shaggy-haired and festooned in beads and bells. “People were sitting and passing a joint and listening to the music,” she told me, “and I’m there with my crocodile bag and my little kitten heels. It was just, like, where am I?”

Bewildered, Bergen found the host, Terry Melcher. Doris Day’s son, Melcher had been Bergen’s first love when she was sixteen and he was a college dropout in Italian loafers. Five years later, Melcher wore jeans and an Indian shirt, his hair down to his shoulders. He worked at Columbia Records, which placed him at the center of the California rock scene: he produced the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” and played on the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds.” “You seem so old,” Melcher told Bergen. “Don’t you miss being a kid?”

Candice Bergen and Terry Melcher, in 1968.Photograph by Murphy George / Daily Herald / Mirrorpix / Getty 

The two became a couple again. They took motorcycle rides through the mountains, and she tried to fit in with his hippie circle, which included Brian Wilson and John and Michelle Phillips, from the Mamas and the Papas. “I was beyond straight,” she recalled. “No number of robes and beads, no amount of dope was going to change that, though God knows I tried.” She moved into Melcher’s house in Benedict Canyon, where the party had been: 10050 Cielo Drive.

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