For the love of entertainment
The 70s are often regarded as the best decade of filmmaking. Cinema was in a rapid state of flux: 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. A lot of riskier fare got made because for the moment the rulebook 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: 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. 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’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.
Crime thrillers 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, France was the leading exporter of heroin into the U.S. and New York City was the entry point. Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider play cops who have spent years making busts without 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 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. The French Connection is gritty and revels in being gritty. 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 it’s pop culture juggernaut status can only be rivaled by the Godfather movies on this list. 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 I can’t stop rolling my eyes. I would also argue that much of Rocky‘s legacy comes from the popular appeal of its sequels.
Should have won in 1976: Rocky has pop culture immortality but Network got shafted. Network‘s grim vision of the future of entertainment has only proven to be more and more prophetic. Network 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. 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. To be fair to The Deer Hunter, it’s effective. Its brutality is shocking and it hammers its points in. 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 a decade full of big characters and heavy dramas, Kramer vs. Kramer is a quietly poignant story about a family splitting up. Although it was becoming more common, divorce was still controversial in the 70s. Pop culture had toyed with divorce as a plot device but Kramer was its first in-depth look. It’s about two people who allowed themselves to be defined by the roles society handed them, now finding that they need more. 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 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 many 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 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 about the one 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. 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–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 fans would argue that it deserved the win. Others say Star Wars killed quality cinema (albeit unintentionall) by creating a blockbuster culture that spurns the verve that made 70s cinema great. I don’t think it’s fair to lay all that on Star Wars, but I do think the Academy got it right by going for Annie Hall.
I’m not a fan of The Godfather Part II. I find it long, boring, overly-complex, and 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. And for memorable moments, you can’t top 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 a tough call, but I can’t forget the big 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, 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 history. How does that work? Perhaps because Patton himself was a man ‘unstuck in time.’ Patton could only be happy on the battlefield. But the glory and honor of the army Patton knew 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 life. He makes Patton biting, ruthless, and difficult, but he also shows him to be sentimental, romantic, and artistic. An alcoholic with a reputation for being intense and intimidating, George C. Scott refused his Oscar nomination for Patton but won anyway–and really, what could be more Patton than that?
Should have won in 1970: Patton went up against Five Easy Pieces and a great Vietnam war movie that later became a classic TV show in Mash. Patton deserved it.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a literary classic that should be unadaptable. The novel is full of acid trips from the head of its mute narrator, a resident of an asylum. 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 quirks and focused on the parable at its center: Randall Patrick McMurphy, a freewheeling anarchist facing off against the system embodied by Nurse Ratched. He inspires the inmates to stand up for themselves, then tragically falls victim to the system he’s been fighting. To seal the deal, hire Jack Nicholson to play McMurphy. Nicholson has a 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 that his recklessness can’t 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 wonderful, 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 prefer Part II. Many 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 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: Interestingly, The Godfather only won three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay. Cabaret, a musical about life in Germany just as Nazis took over (which would have easily won Best Picture any other year), stole The Godfather‘s thunder in a lot of categories–including Best Director. My 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. I say let it stand the way it was, with Cabaret getting Director and Godfather getting Picture.