For the love of entertainment
The 70s are known for being perhaps the best decade of filmmaking. Certainly the most daring and revolutionary. Cinema was in a rapid state of flux: to simplify things, the old studio system was dying and Hollywood hadn’t quite figured out how to go on without it. A lot of the standard fair studios had churned out for decades wasn’t working anymore. Musicals and westerns became risky ventures so the old standards no longer applied and a lot of riskier fare got made because for the moment the rule book didn’t exist. All that would change by 1980, of course, and many blame the runaway success of Jaws and Star Wars for that. But the point stands: this was a great decade for movies. How the Academy chose winners at all sometimes is mind-boggling.
Just a reminder of my ground rules: I am only considering films that won an Oscar for Best Picture during the years between 1970 and 1979. If I tried to include all the nominees or films that were snubbed by the Academy I would go mad. I will comment on whether or not a film should have won in its given year, but whether or not it deserved to win cannot impact its ranking.
It says a lot about the quality of movies in the 1970s that a movie this enjoyable comes in last. The Sting is an exceptionally well made movie with divine performances–and not just from leads Robert Redford and Paul Newman (wisely teamed up again four years after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). The Sting is a heist movie; Robert Redford plays a con artist who teams up with Paul Newman’s legendary huckster for the perfect swindle. It’s Ocean’s 11 with more charm and wit. If the scheme is overly convoluted in order to pull the wool over the viewer’s eyes, and if the reveal that they were actually in control the entire time feels like a cheat, Redford and Newman are so irresistible that you forgive the offense. That The Sting has no pretense at being anything other than entertainment is both part of its charm and its ultimate downfall. In a decade full of important movies, entertainment just isn’t enough.
Should have won in 1973: The Exorcist. It was so successful because it challenged notions of modern faith. It’s a movie that entertains you, scares you, and really says something at the same time. The Sting is a great movie but it was the safe choice.
When it comes to gritty crime thrillers, they don’t get much more bruise-black than The French Connection. It’s fast-paced and exciting, but it has real meat to it, too. In the 60s and 70s France was the leading exporter of heroin into the U.S. and New York City was ground zero. It was a growing concern. Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider play cops who have spent years making drug busts without even making a dent in the problem when they stumble on a lead: a big heroin deal is going down in a few days. If they can stop it they can catch the French connection who has been responsible for bringing all this heroin into their turf. The movie also runs a fascinating parallel between its hero, the angry rule-busting alcoholic Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, and its bad guy, the suave and collected Alain Charnier. Gene Hackman, who won a Best Actor Oscar for his live-wire performance, makes you root for Doyle even as you fear him. Even so, when he shoots a suspect in the back you can’t help but wonder who it is you’re rooting for. You can’t fault The French Connection for going there. It’s gritty and it revels in being gritty because it takes its subject matter seriously. Still, while you can’t call this fluff there’s no denying that its primary goal–even in provoking you–is to entertain.
Should have won in 1971: The Last Picture Show. There can be no debate.
Rocky is another movie that’s unapologetic entertainment, but there’s no denying that it has power to move you. On the one hand, Rocky is a pop culture juggernaut rivaled only by the Godfather movies on this list. So many iconic treasures: Burgess Meredith’s grizzled coach, Rocky practicing punches on slabs of meat, shouting for Adrian after the final fight, and of course that jog up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s one of the most beloved movies of all time because it’s a classic underdog story. Rocky was an uneducated lug with a good heart and determination who came from nothing to work his way up to the fight of his life, and he never gave up.
On the other hand, I’ve never seen the entire movie because I find it painful to watch. Yes it’s earnest and it means well, but the love story is so painfully awkward I can’t take it seriously. I would also argue that much of Rocky‘s legacy comes from the popular appeal of the sequels.
Should have won in 1976: Rocky has pop culture immortality but Network got shafted. In the decades since its release Network‘s grim vision of the future of entertainment has only proven to be more and more prophetic. Network was the truly genius movie up for an Oscar this year, and it should have won.
Full disclosure: I do not like The Deer Hunter. I found it to be problematic and I thought it’s machismo-centric worldview was closed-minded to the full impact of war on society. Personally, I think Coming Home did a much better job getting the scale of war’s damage right by showing that it doesn’t just damage the people who fight in it. In contrast, the world of The Deer Hunter seems to only exist for the men at its heart. Which I suppose is fair in this case since the entire point of the movie is to show the Vietnam War’s horrific psychological and physical impact on them–how they go from friends hunting deer to scarred shadows with no place in the world. To be fair to The Deer Hunter, it’s effective. Its brutality is shocking and it hammers its points in. As a brute movie, though, it’s also flawed–sometimes deeply.
Should have won in 1978: in case you can’t tell, I’m more of a fan of Coming Home in the battle of Vietnam war movies that was 1978.
In a decade full of big characters and heavy dramas, Kramer vs. Kramer is a quietly poignant story about a family splitting up. Divorce was still controversial in the 70s, although it was becoming more common. Pop culture toyed with divorce as a plot device but Kramer was perhaps the first in-depth look at a fractured family.
It’s about two deeply unhappy people finally grappling with their own identities. They allowed themselves to be defined by the roles society handed them, but now they want to know who they really are. Does a woman have to give up her own identity to be a wife and mother? Does a man have to bury himself in work, so afraid of being emotional that his own family becomes strangers to him? The most revolutionary thing Kramer vs. Kramer achieved was making you question the notion of a ‘traditional’ family. And instead of vilifying the wife and mother who leaves, then changes her mind, the movie invites you to understand what it is like to be a woman forced into a role–and to finally be able to decide for yourself what matters to you in life. Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep both won their first Oscars for this movie and deserved them.
Should have won in 1979: I’m sure a contingent of people would love it if Apocalypse Now had won instead, but I think the Academy got it right. It’s important to tackle politics and war in art, but it’s just as important to remember to look closely at what’s going on at home. Sometimes the biggest revolutions happen quietly.
There isn’t much action to be found in Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s classic love story that isn’t actually a love story so much as a reflection on a great love that got away. Allen plays a neurotic New Yorker, which is a cliche now but in 1977 Allen hadn’t succumbed to his own neuroses in art. He falls for and loses the equally neurotic Annie Hall, played to divine perfection by Diane Keaton. There’s a lot of dialogue. A lot. It’s by far the talkiest movie on this list. But it’s smart, funny dialogue. It isn’t afraid to be weird or take surreal sidebars. And most important of all: it isn’t afraid to be bleak. Things don’t always work out in life. Sometimes you screw up and you can’t make it right. Sometimes the guy and the girl don’t work things out–and that’s okay, or at least you have to learn to be okay with it. Audiences usually demand happy endings, because as Allen points out in character it’s tempting to make things come out perfectly in art because you can. It’s difficult in real life. Somehow, Annie Hall manages to be honest and get it just right.
Should have won in 1977: Star Wars fanatics would argue that it changed cinema, which makes it deserve the win. Others say Star Wars had the unintended impact of killing quality cinema–that Star Wars made studios hungry for money, which led to a blockbuster culture that spurned the originality and daring that made 70s cinema so great. I don’t think it’s fair to lay all that blame on Star Wars, but I do think the Academy got it right by going for the quietly unromantic romantic comedy and the true original that was Annie Hall.
I’m not a fan of The Godfather Part II. I find it long, boring, overly-complex, and way too self-serious. But I concede that I am in the minority on this. I was, however, impressed to discover that Roger Ebert agreed with me perfectly on Part II when he gave it a three star review but included it in his list of “Great Movies” in 2008. Why? Because to him, you have to take Part II as an extension of Part I, and that’s how I see it. Part II has some deep flaws, but it is so inextricably tied to The Godfather that you almost can’t separate them.
What the movie gets right it knocks out of the park. The performances are incredible across the board. Al Pacino should have won Best Actor. Robert De Niro played the young Don Corleone in a performance that deepened what Marlon Brando did in The Godfather. Diane Keaton is spectacular as Kay, who cannot reconcile who the man she married has become compared to the innocent man she fell in love with. When she confessed to getting an abortion rather than bring another of his children into the world, I couldn’t breathe. And then there’s Fredo. Poor dumb Fredo. “You broke my heart.”
Should have won in 1974: This year’s also-rans include Chinatown and The Conversation, just in case you’d forgotten how much quality cinema was created in the 70s. It’s such a tough call, but I just can’t ever forget that fight between Michael and Kay. Or how we said goodbye to Fredo.
If it seems odd to find Patton, a biopic about a larger-than-life WWII General, on the same list as The Deer Hunter–and in the same decade as Coming Home and Apocalypse Now–consider that it probably felt like a movie out of time even in 1970. Public sentiment was already against the war in Vietnam, yet here was a biopic about one of the biggest war-loving Generals in American history. How does that work? Perhaps because Patton himself was a man ‘unstuck in time.’ His gregarious personality had no place in peacetime. Only on the battlefield could Patton be free. But war was changing, and quickly. The glory and honor of the army Patton needed was evolving into something else. And the truth is, he was too outsized a man even for army life. His clashes with authority endangered his career time and again, and time and again he found himself powerless to toe the line in order to get by with his superiors. In one of the greatest bits of casting synergy ever, George C. Scott possessed many of the same qualities and used them to bring Patton to vibrant, multilayered life. He makes Patton biting, ruthless, and difficult, but he also shows him to be oddly sentimental, romantic, and artistic. An alcoholic with a reputation for being intense and intimidating, George C. Scott refused his Oscar nomination for Best Actor for Patton but won anyway, despite having called the whole thing a meat parade. See what I mean about synergy? What could be more Patton than that?
Should have won in 1970: Patton went up against a great Vietnam war movie that later became a classic TV show in Mash, but Five Easy Pieces was the biggest competition. I think Patton deserved it.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a classic of literature that should be unadaptable for film. The novel is full of acid trips and hallucinations that put you inside the mind of the inmates of the asylum it inhabits–nevermind that the narrator of the novel refuses to speak. How do you make that work on film? Hire Milos Forman, who saw within the framework of the novel an allegory about escape and freedom he could relate to, having grown up in the Czech Republic. He stripped the story of its acid-trip quirks and focused on the relatively simple parable at its center: Randall Patrick McMurphy, a freewheeling anarchist, imprisoned in an asylum and facing off against the embodiment of the system: Nurse Ratched. He inspires the inmates around him to stand up for themselves, then tragically falls victim to the very system he’s been fighting. To seal the deal, hire Jack Nicholson to play McMurphy. Nicholson has a very strong personality that shines through all his characters, and it will never be put to better use than in this performance.
The true genius of Cuckoo’s Nest is that it manipulates you into taking McMurphy’s side even as it shows you evidence that his recklessness cannot actually help his fellow patients–nor can Ratched’s dehumanizing rigidity. Political allegory disguised as a tragic tale about the triumph of the human spirit. Now that’s subversive.
Should have won in 1975: The same arguments for and against Star Wars in 1977 could be repeated for Jaws here. Meanwhile, Dog Day Afternoon is a spellbinding movie to watch, but the Oscar belongs to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
The ultimate. I guess this is really only a surprise if you’re one of those people who prefers The Godfather Part II. What’s interesting is that The Godfather didn’t actually sweep the Oscars that year. In fact, it only won three: Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay. Cabaret, a musical about life in Germany just before the Nazis took over (and which would have easily won Best Picture any other year), stole The Godfather‘s thunder in a lot of categories–including Best Director.
Many people regard The Godfather as a perfect movie and I won’t do anything to refute that claim. It’s a story about America, it’s a story about Italy. It’s a story about honoring family, it’s a story about creating new family. It’s a story about loyalty, it’s a story about betrayal. It’s a story about crime, it’s a story about business. It’s violent and suspenseful and oddly moving. So many of the core qualities The Godfather appears to celebrate are deeply problematic, and somehow even that manages to be part of the discussion about how brilliant it is just because it gets the conversation going. The screenplay is perfect, the acting is perfect, the cinematography, lighting, and music are perfect. It’s a landmark of cinema.
Should have won in 1972: my own personal preference is for Cabaret, which really is a genius movie that got shafted by being the same year as The Godfather. But the legacy The Godfather has is well-earned and deserves respect. I say let it stand the way it was, with Cabaret getting Director and Godfather getting Picture.