By John H. Foote
These are 10 extraordinary directing achievements that DID NOT win the Academy Award and, when you read them, discovering who they are you might be stunned. It is one thing to think that Kubrick or Pakula or Ashby never won an Oscar, it is quite another to realize Coppola lost for The Godfather (1972)!
They are 10 who lost the Oscar but should have won. While I cite three from 1976, Pakula is the choice I would go with.
The seventies for me represents the greatest 10 year period in American film history, a time when artists were permitted to take great artistic risks and audiences were ready for them. There was a hunger from film audiences to be challenged by their cinema, and often movies that might not stand a chance today would be money makers. What took place was something magical, as the studios gave their power to the directors, who for a time made great use of the new found power and made some brilliant films that would never had gotten made otherwise. It suddenly was acceptable for cinema to explore divorce, drug addtion, sexuality, homosexuality, mental illness, the staggering impact of Vietnam, Watergate and other difficult historical events, relationships, and countless other subjects that had previously been taboo.
What the connecting theme for great cinema became was truth, movies were no longer Hollywood fantasies all the time, often now they told the truth. Even when they were fantasies, the truth governed them.
In the seventies the director became appreciated and recognized (finally) as the prime creative force behind a film, any film. With that in mind, directors made the films their way and put their heart and souls into the work, while audiences responded with admiration. The studio system might have been dead, but the Academy was still conservative and much older than the actors and directors in Hollywood. Though there was still a grip on old Hollywood by the Academy, every so often you could feel the hold weaken, but in some cases the new American cinema was not going to dominate the Academy Awards. There was no chance a film that was a counter cultural masterpiece like A Clockwork Orange (1971) would be handed an Oscar when there were more conservative works out there such as The French Connection (1971) a grimly realistic, crime thriller, Fiddler on the Roof (1971), the screen adaptation of the beloved stage musical, and The Last Picture Show (1971), a dark nostalgic look at a dying town in the fifties. Three great films, no question, but Kubrick’s film is for the ages, and desrved to be appreciated as such.
One by one, here are ten directors from the seventies who did not win an Oscar for Best Director, but should have, the film they directed, and the film and director who bested them:
BOB RAFELSON FOR FIVE EASY PIECES (1970) — His powerful film Five Easy Pieces spoke to a new generation of American men and women, those with a past, those disenchanted by society and themselves, aimless, drifting through their life with no apparent purpose, masking self loathing with a sense of confidence. Fresh from his success in Easy Rider (1969), Jack Nicholson laid his claim to being the seventies’ greatest actor with a powerful, perfect performance as Bobby Dupea, struggling to find meaning in his life. Rafelson guided Nicholson gently, working with the actor to create a stunning character study perfectly in tune with the surroundings. When Bobby boards that truck at the end bound for Alaska, he wants to go as far as he can go from the life he has, a powerful statement. How many young American men felt that exact way in the seventies? The film spoke to them, Nicholson became them. Hollywood journeyman Franklin J. Shaffner won Best Director for his film, Patton (1970), which won eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor.
STANLEY KUBRICK FOR A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) — Set in the not so distant future back in 1971, what is remarkable about A Clockwork Orange today, 46 years later, is that it still feels like a science fiction thriller, the future is still possible. Kubrick’s bleak look at the not so distant, dystopian future is a powerful piece of cinema, as much a black comedy as it is a cautionary science fiction film about government control. Alex (Malcolm MacDowell) is a happy psychopath who gleefully goes about his life pillaging, raping, and eventually murdering which has him sent to prison. There he undergoes an experimental treatment that robs him of choice and eventually brings heartache and tragedy into his life, making him a matyr. It is a stunning film, with a jaunty performance from MacDowell that the actor never equalled. From Kubrick we have the finest, most electrifying direction of his career. William Friedkin would win the Oscar for The French Connection (1971), which while a gritty crime film that was fresh and new, was not near the film or accomplishment A Clockwork Orange (1971) was. Kubrick created a stunning, visceral nightmare of a future that was also from time to time a startling black comedy.
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA FOR THE GODFATHER (1972) — HOW IS HE ON THIS LIST????? Well because he lost the Oscar for Best Director for The Godfather (1972) to Bob Fosse for Cabaret (1972). After taking the DGA it seemed Coppola was a shoo-in for the Oscar, but Cabaret (1972) marched to eight wins including director, losing Best Picture to Coppola’s crime epic. The reason The Godfather (1972) is a masterpiece is BECAUSE of Coppola; he fought for the cast he wanted, he fought for the period setting (same as the book), he fought for the length, he fought hardest for Pacino (can you imagine anyone else???) but most of all he fought to give the film a greater substance, something the book lacked. He made the film about the perveristy of the American Dream, how it can become warped yet still achieved, and drew greater focus to the sense of family. He had the courage to take his time and let scenes play out, the audience with him all the way because he knew the performances were outstanding. Genius, and he lost the Oscar.
GEORGE LUCAS FOR AMERICAN GRAFFITTI (1973) — Though he is celebrated (and scorned) for the Star Wars franchise, the best film he ever made, and his greatest accomplishment as a filmmaker is this low budget little film about a group of teenagers during the last weekend of the summer in 1962. They are a cross-section of the American high school culture, the class jock and president, the cheerleader on his arm, the nerd, the brains, the tough guy who left high school but really has not left it behind, the dumb blonde, and the girl who wants to belong. Part way through the film you might find yourself saying, “I know that kid … I was that kid”. Lucas captures the innocence of the time, that sense of hope that would be dashed a year later in Dallas on November 22. The gliding cars, waxed and gleaming on Friday night, the rock and roll blaring from them all, and the kids, smiling, having fun, looking for trouble, living their lives. The performances of the entire cast are perfect and forever seared into our minds upon seeing the film. And the director, in a brilliant move, gives the film a sense of melancholy by letting us know what happened to the kids in the future. Haunting. He lost the Oscar, incredibly to George Roy Hill for The Sting (1973) … gulp.
ALAN J. PAKULA FOR ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976) — How does one make sense out of the myriad of information that became Watergate? Sure you can read the best-selling book by the reporters who uncovered it all, but how do you piece together the puzzle that would lead to the resignation of President Nixon just two years after his landslide victory? You allow the gifted screen writer William Goldman to adapt the book, you hire the brilliant Alan J. Pakula to make the film because he understood they were making a detectvie like thriller, and he gave it that sort of feel. Goldman’s script is perfect, literate, intelligent, smart, and accurate, he takes no liberties with the story, all you see and hear happened. Pakula set much of the film within the walls of the Washington Post, but also allowed us to see the reporters roaming Washington gaining information, hitting dead ends and encountering the myserious Deep Throat, their inside man. Jason Robards won an Oscar as Ben Bradlee, the hard nosed editor, while Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman disappear into their roles as Woodward and Bernstein. Superb, the best film of 1976. For his Cinderella story Rocky (1976), B movie director John G. Avildsen would win the Oscar and never come close to it again.
SIDNEY LUMET FOR NETWORK (1976) — Lumet was always an exceptional director of actors, he liked them, he understood them, he knew they were artists and respected them as such. From his debut film, it was clear Lumet loved actors, and that was never more evident than in this superb 1976 film that accurately foreshadowed the future of American television. The film earned six Oscar nominations for the acting alone, and then proceeded to win three of the four acting Oscars. A vicious black comedy satire, behind the scenes of a fictional TV network news division where the anchor man has gone off the rails, a full scale nervous breakdown, but rather than getting him the help he needs, they exploit him and put him on TV as a modern day messiah. Reality TV sweeps the network and it is huge, but day by day we see the anchor man slipping further into madness, believing he speaks God’s message, until they have no choice but to assassinate him live on air … that will get a helluva rating. Fine performances from Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, Beatrice Straight, Oscars for all, as well as William Goldman, Robert Duvall and Ned Beatty are highlights but Lumet’s tight direction, documentary like is the star. Again bested by Rocky (1976) and Avildsen.
MARTIN SCORSESE FOR TAXI DRIVER (1976) — A stunning achievement that made Scorsese one of the most respected directors in movies overnight, winning the top prize at Cannes. This dark, disturbing film explores a descent into madness when a Vietnam veteran working as a cab driver in New York City becomes obsessed with the filth in the city. A seething performance from Robert De Niro moves through the film like a heartbeat, more a ticking time bomb, ticking down to what we know, what we can sense will be a terrifying explosion of rage. De Niro breaks in every way from society, from the human race and from reality until he finally goes on a murderous rampage painted by the press as a means of saving a 12-year old prostitute he has befriended. Scorsese makes the city a sort of hell on earth, the grates holding back brimstone and smoke lurking just beneath the city, the night life inhabitants of what is below the city. His camera roams, like an extra set of eyes, capturing the nightmare of what De Niro sees, and how we see him. At the end, after his recovery, the madness is still there, and the bomb begins to tick again. Masterfully directed, again, a loser to Rocky (1976) and Avildsen, though Scorsese, despite a Best Picture nomination, was not nominated for Best Director. Shameful.
STEVEN SPIELBERG FOR CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) — Snubbed by the Academy for his superb direction of Jaws (1975) two year previous, there was no way they could ignore his accomplishments on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), which he also wrote. By this point in his career Spielberg was the wunderkind of the business, an under 30 director with ridiculous talents. For this magnificent film about man’s first contact with alien beings, he was nominated for his first Oscar, but the film, despite rave reviews, was not among the nominees for Best Picture. Star Wars was, Annie Hall was, but this was not. Spielberg should have won for the last 45 minutes of the film alone, when man comes face to face with the aliens in an extraordinary epic scene of raw emotion and wonderous awe. If this ever is to happen, and I hope it does, I hope it happens with this much humanity, and love and peace. The director would make clear he was the finest storyteller working in movies, and forged a career as such. He lost to Woody Allen for reinventing the romantic comedy Annie Hall (1977).
HAL ASHBY FOR COMING HOME (1978) — Though I understand how the DGA and Academy were initially impressed with Michael CImino and The Deer Hunter (1978), had they waited, had they dug a little deeper, they might have discovered he was a towering fraud who climbed on the shoulders of others to achieve his art. There is no denying The Deer Hunter (1978) has powerful moments, but I defy anyone to prove to me it is more powerful than the quiet moments of anguish and visceral pain in Coming Home, beautifully directed by Hal Ashby. A gentle, hippy editor turned director, Ashby adored actors, working with them, taking them further than even they thought possible. Jane Fonda, Jon Voight (especially) and Bruce Dern (forever haunting) are sublime as the trio of people caught up in the madness of the war in Vietnam and what it did to them as people. All the Russian Roulette sequences in the world cannot compete with the final eight minutes of this film, as Voight comes to terms with what the war did to him, and Dern deciding it is all too much for him, as “Once I Was” is mournfully sung by Tim Buckley. Cimino won the Oscar, Ashby deserved it.
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA FOR APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) — Seriously, how did Francis Ford Coppola NOT win the Academy Award for Apocalypse Now which is among the greatest directorial achievements in the history of the cinema? He took the art of the cinema further than any other director in the seventies and gave us a war film unlike any other, that plunged us into the inferno of Vietnam while exploring the nightmare of every war before and after. With its surrealistic style, stunning cinematography, brilliant performances by Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall and Marlon Brando, and magnificent editing, Coppola created a film that was intoxicating and hypnotic from that opening jungle sequence to the final moments where we have witnessed “the horror”. Coppola began making the film in 1976 and emerged three years later at Cannes with an unfinished work that stunned critics and audiences, earning a 15 minute ovation and the festival’s Best Picture prize. Robert Benton won the Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), which also won Best Picture. Yep, seriously.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.