By John H. Foote
The American Bicentennial year brought with it many great films, from both the United States and around the globe.
1976 was the year I REALLY discovered the power and art of cinema. I had my drivers license and could freely drive in my own car to Oshawa, twenty minutes from home to see what I wanted. Blessed with a beard at thirteen, never once was I asked for ID, so I would bounce from theatre to theatre downtown, often seeing four to five films a day, a foreshadow of upcoming film festival days.
Film was my religion, theatres my church.
I remember the grand old Regent, so opulent, so beautiful even as it decayed. The Odeon and Hyland were almost identical, while the repertory cinema The Marks was old and smelled like dirty socks, the Coca Cola always flat, no fizz. They ran double features at the Marks, recent releases or re-releases, bearing in mind video was still a few years away. When I began going to Toronto to see films, the University Theatre on Bloor Street was a beloved haunt as was the glorious Uptown and the majestic Imperial Six, all of them gone.
In my youth I liked to go to the movies alone, though if there was something my brothers or sister were interested in, I would happily take them along. It was late 1977 when I had a girlfriend, Sue, and we saw everything. I suppose the unwritten prerequisite to being with me was MUST LOVE MOVIES.
I remember so clearly seeing Taxi Driver for the first time, a galvanizing experience. Realism had never been so intensely authentic, and the violence was beyond shocking. But I was swept away by the power of the performances and the dark imagery the director put on the screen. The name Martin Scorsese was about to become part of my religion.
Though not all the films we remember 1976 for are films for the ages, at least one is notorious for being popular with critics while audiences blew raspberries, and another was an austere, chilly science fiction film starring a rock star as an alien. The much-anticipated remake of King Kong drew decent reviews but howls from audience at the obvious man in the suit romping on miniature sets. Incredibly Jessica Lange elevated the film out of bad camp to something acceptable with her game, spitfire performance. David Bowie gave a haunted and haunting performance as Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who arrives on earth in hopes of transporting precious water back to his dying planet. And The Bad News Bears was the comic delight of the year, loved by my brothers and I for its spot-on portrayal of foul-mouthed kids playing baseball.
Though for most of the year darkness prevailed on the screens, at years end an upstart actor-writer named Sylvester Stallone created Rocky, a love story that captured the hearts of America and ran away with the Oscar for Best Picture, though in hindsight it was the weakest of the nominees. As the movie of the moment, Rocky ushered in a new era in film, the feel-good era which would bring hope and happiness to the screen.
Yes, 1976 was quite a year.
The Man Who Fell to Earth
David Bowie was perfectly cast as an alien who comes to earth seeking a way to get water home to his dying planet. Nicholas Roeg directed this austere, bizarre and stark film based on the book, and surprisingly captured perfectly the very essence of the novel. Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie) appears from out of nowhere with several creations for which he wishes to secure patents. Within a few short years he is obscenely wealthy, and those closest to him have begun to ask questions about his past. His plan of course is to take water back to his planet, where his people are dying of thirst. We see flashbacks to the planet, his family, who he does not know if they are alive or dead. Taking up with a loving young woman nicely portrayed by Candy Clark, when he reveals himself to her it is far more than she can handle. Her reaction is hysterical fear, genuine terror, and the kind of terror human beings should never experience. Bowie is very good in the film, capturing a genuine sadness, the weight of a man who has lost everything. The film holds up well and remains one of the most interesting science fiction films of the decade.
Murder by Death
Possibly the best original screenplay written by Neil Simon, this was never a play but went right to film and then years later made its way to the stage. It is a spoof of the great detective films and film noirs of the forties. A collection of famous detectives and super sleuths based on those from the movies descend on the massive home of a famous writer to solve a murder. The murder is real, sort of, the comedy is fast and furious, the performances are wonderful in one of the best ensembles of the year. Alec Guinness is superb as the blind butler to the mysterious Lionel Twain. Portrayed with puckish pomposity by Truman Capote, a dreadful actor but interesting presence. Peter Falk steals every scene he is in as the Bogart-esque private eye Sam, Peter Sellers is hysterically good as Wang, a Charlie Chan type genius, while David Niven is terrific as a thin man type. Elsa Lancaster is terrific as a Miss Marple type, wheeling her nurse around! You get the picture, correct? The dialogue is fast and furious, the jokes keep coming, and the twists are many. Suffice to say nothing is as it seems. Look for Nancy Walker is a hilarious comic role. A nice bouncy score compliments this underrated film, which Simon followed with the terrible The Cheap Detective (1978). Murder by Death, along with The Goodbye Girl (1977), are the last truly great original films Simon created.
A Star is Born
The truth be told, the critics were lying in wait to butcher this film because Barbra Streisand had bullied Director Frank Pierson and taken the directing reins. Further, her boyfriend, hairdresser Jon Peters was pulling the same bullying act with long time Hollywood folk, endearing himself to no one. He very nearly found himself on the losing end of a Kris Kristofferson batch of whoop ass. Streisand wanted to remake the twice made film, transplanting the narrative to the music world and the song score is where this film soars. Kristofferson is haunting as a burnt-out rocker who discovers Streisand and helps her become a star. This film was the inspiration for the recent box office smash with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. Paul Williams and Streisand wrote many of the songs including the Oscar winning Evergreen. The cinematography is first rate, the film was beloved by audiences and swept the Golden Globes, not the Oscars.
Directed by Richard Donner, with a brooding, powerful score, created with violins, cellos and Gregorian chants, The Omen was a huge box office success and one of the finest, sharpest horror films to emerge in the years after The Exorcist (1973). Using the book of Revelations quotes about the coming of the Antichrist sometime in the future, we follow the events that bring young Damien, a strange five-year-old to the home of political bigshot Thorne (Gregory Peck) and his wife portrayed by Lee Remick. Strange things happen around Damien, his nanny hangs herself at his birthday party, allowing a knowing woman to take her place. A trip to the zoo brings chaos when the animals, sensing evil go berserk at the presence of Damien. And he himself goes wild as the family approaches a church, his eyes wild with terror as the car draws closer to the towering cross on the steeple. Gradually his father comes to terms with what the child is and sets about to kill the child. That proves not so easy. Very creepy and scary, the look of the child, Harvey Stephens is perfect. And that final stare at us? Freaked me out! Jerry Goldsmith wrote the finest score of his career, a deep resonating track with Gregorian chants and much bass. The sequels were increasingly more foolish, and the remake was awful, but this one holds up.
The Bad News Bears
Like countless kids I played baseball, not on the level of my brothers (more of a hockey guy), but I played, so this film is very important to me. Accurate, funny, sad and often brilliant it deals with a team of misfits who come together under the coaching of a drunken coach portrayed by Walter Matthau. The kids are a cross section of a grade five class room, the jock, the foul-mouthed punk, the geek, the dork, the losers, the immigrants, the kid with zero talent and their pitcher, the local hood, a fastball throwing girl played by Tatum O’Neal. Written by Bill Lancaster, son of Burt, the film is biting in its humour and profound in its accuracy. Remade in 2006, but not nearly as well. Matthau was terrific, but the kids stole the movie as easily as a Major League player steals bases. The insults are fast and furious, the play on the field is often hilarious yet the film comes together to explore how a team becomes family. The language? Well many complained the film deserved an R. Baloney, we had heard, hell, we said far worse.
Face to Face
In Ingmar Bergman’s brilliant, cerebral demanding film Liv Ullman gives a performance for the ages as a woman struggling with anxieties which erupt into a full-scale nervous breakdown. Ullman, a gifted actress known as Bergman’s muse was never better than she is here and to be clear, she has been extraordinary in the past. Here she digs deep, slipping into the darkness that torments this poor woman’s mind. The actress is astonishing in creating a portrait of a woman losing her fierce grip on reality. Bergman gives the film an austere, often cold penetrating feel, which allows Ullman to take front and centre, to draw the audience close with her astonishing performance. Oscar nominated, the actress never did win despite genius work such as this, her work in Persona (1968), Cries and Whispers (1972), and Autumn Sonata (1978) all for Bergman and The Emigrants (1972) for Jon Troell. She and the director rival John Ford and John Wayne, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro and Tim Burton and Johnny Depp for Director-Actor collaborative creating art.
The Outlaw Josey Wales
Clint Eastwood began establishing himself as a fine director in the seventies, beginning with the thriller Play Misty for Me (1971). By the time he directed this fine western Orion Welles has declared him one of the great directors in movies. Sixteen years after this powerful film, Eastwood won the Academy Award for his greatest western, Unforgiven (1992). As Josey Wales, Eastwood gives a compelling performance as a man who loses everything and declares war on those who took it. Beautifully shot, well directed and especially well acted, the portrayal of loss, of grief is powerful, and the resignation that the war is over is a tremendously cathartic moment. Eastwood would improve as a director to become a two-time Academy Award winning filmmaker, twice winner of the DGA and four-time Best Director nominee. The greatness started here.
The first book by Stephen King adapted to the screen, Director Brian De Palma cut loose with a knock out horror film with two Oscar nominated performances from his leading ladies Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. As the young girl blessed or cursed with telekinetic abilities which her mother insists make her a spawn of Satan, Sissy Spacek was brilliant, both gentle and sad, haunted and terrifying, as Carrie White, a girl so insulated by her religious zealot of a mother, she does not even realize what is happening to her when she gets her first period. Mercilessly taunted by her classmates, she collapses in the shower. This leads a plot to be started against Carrie to humiliate her. Like Cinderella she is transformed by the attentions of a handsome young boy, chosen to pretend he is interested in Carrie, asking her to the prom. But there, a bucket of pig’s blood is dumped on Carrie, the bucket crashes down killing the boy, and Carrie’s astonishing powers are unleashed. We watch in awe as she destroys those who hurt her, killed Tommy and ruined her transformation. Not even her mother is spared for her part in what she did to her daughter, crucified with knives that seem to hurl themselves through the air. Spacek is truly frightening when her eyes go wide, birdlike jerks of her head closing doors to prevent anyone from leaving, and she begins her assault with her mind, walking slowly through the carnage. De Palma gave the film a stunning shock ending, but everything that happened previous, was equally terrifying. One of the great King books to film.
Ironically, in his last film, portraying the last days of a famous gunfighter as he was dying of cancer, the great John Wayne was himself dying of the disease as it ravaged his body. As John Books, a famous and infamous gunfighter, Wayne gave one of his finest performances. Rarely has the actor been so vulnerable on screen. He arrives in the town in 1901, to see an old doctor he trusts portrayed by James Stewart. Wanting a second opinion, Books has ridden for days to find his old friend for a diagnosis. Told he has cancer, advanced, he decides to stay in the town as the cancer runs its course and the good doctor can care for him. But Books has other thoughts too. Admitting to his landlady, portrayed with gentle grace by Lauren Bacall, “I’m a dying man, afraid of the dark” and thus decides to die his way. Wayne is superb in the film, richly deserving of an Oscar nomination that never came. Don Siegel directed the film, bringing to it a sense of autumn, of late in life happenings out of our control. Beautifully acted by Wayne and Bacall, who both deserved Oscar nominations, Stewart, Ron Howard and a wonderful ensemble cast. This was the last great American western before Heaven’s Gate (1980) all but killed the genre for many years.
For a very few short years in the seventies, Lina Wertmuller was the greatest Italian Director for working in film. The first woman nominated for an Academy Award as Best Director, Wertmuller found herself the lone woman nominee for several years but was completely deserving. A dark, harrowing film with moments of black comedy, Seven Beauties deals with a brother who murders the man who pimped out his sister’s. Sent to prison, complications ensue, and he ends up in a concentration camp run by the Nazis, the everyday operations overseen by an ugly, overweight monstrosity of a woman. Like a cockroach, this man will do anything to survive, including having sex with this monster. Giancarlo Gianinni was Oscar nominated as Best Actor for his superb performance, one of many he gave for Wertmuller in the seventies. Beware, the film is black, very dark and explores the darkness of the human soul, but it is well acted and crafted brilliantly by Wertmuller, who all but disappeared after the seventies, after making history.
Created by an actor down on his luck, written in three days, Rocky was a Cinderella story about a boxer who gets a million to one shot at the heavyweight championship of the world. A club fighter, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) does not realize the fight is a gimmick, set up by the Ali like champ as a show not a real fight. All Rocky wants is to prove he was not just another bum from his ghetto neighbourhood, to be taken seriously as a fighter just once, to go the distance. While he trains he falls in love with a mouse girl, Adrian (Talia Shire) who blossoms under his affection. We all know the story, Rock is a surprise to the champ, going fifteen punishing rounds giving as good as he gets. Rocky does not win the fight, but he goes the distance and gets the girl, which in the end was all he wanted. Stallone became a star overnight, and the film incredibly bested the previous three films, all superior for Best Picture. This was the first time I recall audiences cheering the events transpiring on the screen as the two fighters battered and bruised one another in startling boxing scenes of visceral power. Rocky, bleeding and wounded, stood tall and won our hearts. Several sequels followed and a complete rebirth with Creed (2015) have kept the character alive for five decades now, quite the feat but no sequel has equaled this first heartfelt knockout.
“I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” roars the old lion of a newsman, bringing the ratings to the top, turning himself into a TV star instantly, and inadvertently the beginning of his own doom. That Network predicted what television would become forty years before it happened is extraordinary, that it did so with such startling black comedy, and often pure genius is incredible. Paddy Chayefsky wrote the biting screenplay, Sidney Lumet directed the film, one of the finest acted films of the decade, winning three of the four acting Oscars, and it could have been nominated for more. Faye Dunaway won Best Actress as a ball breaking TV producer who seized control of the network news when the anchor is in the throes of a mental breakdown. Oblivious to his madness she turns him into the biggest reality star on TV. Peter Finch is electrifying as Howard Beale, the mad prophet of the airwaves, a serious newsman turned into a joke. William Holden is brilliant as the conscience of the film, Max, who rages against what is being done to his friend. Incredibly Howard believes he is truly speaking to God and therefore must deliver his message. Beatrice Straight is all rage and vindictive fury as the wife Max betrays, winning an Oscar for eight minutes of screen time. Finch in a supporting role won Best Actor after his death two months before the awards. Also brilliant were Robert Duvall as a corrupt executive and Ned Beatty as a messiah like network owner. Lumet beautifully directs the film, taking us to the darkest edges of vile, black comedy, a blistering, savage attack on the medium of television. Truly a work of genius. Alarming in its accuracy in predicting the future of television and reality TV.
The eyes betray his madness. Travis (Robert De Niro) is a Vietnam war veteran who cannot sleep and figures he might as well get paid for being awake. Taking a job as a cab driver in New York City, he takes the worst shifts, Night time through Times Square. Bear in mind this is Times Square pre-Giuliani, before it was cleaned up, before the hookers, drug dealers and criminals were run out, before Times Square became like Disney Land. Appalled with what he sees, Travis cannot let it go, we can feel and see it eating at him. Like a time bomb he is going to explode. When he befriends a twelve-year-old hooker, Iris (Jodie Foster) what he sees being done to her pushes him over the edge. When his plan to assassinate a presidential candidate is thwarted, he instead massacres the pimps and men Iris works for. It is a slaughterhouse when he is finished, and incredibly, ironically, he is a hero for Saving this girl. Yet watch his eyes at the end in the rear-view mirror, he is ticking again, waiting again to go off. De Niro and Foster were electrifying in the film, and Scorsese became a major filmmaker with this film. His imagery sears itself into your mind forever once seen. The steam escaping the sewer grate let’s us know that he’ll lurks just below the street surface, waiting to explode from the bowels of the earth. A descent into madness that leaves the viewer stunned and quaking.
All the President’s Men
Alan J. Pakula directed a masterful film from the brilliant adaptation written by William Goldman of the Woodward/ Bernstein book which detailed their investigation into Watergate, which brought down a Presidency. Pakula shot the film like a detective drama, the perfect tone, and had superb performances from his ensemble, who were all acutely aware they were part of an ensemble. Robert Redford projected intelligence as Bob Woodward, while Dustin Hoffman was all tenacity and risk taking as Carl Bernstein. But it was Jason Robards who stole the film and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as editor Ben Bradley, who understood the reputation of the Washington Post, of all of journalism was on his shoulders as his reporters pieced together this story. Easily the finest film about journalism ever made, this was the years best film. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, it won four, as well as Best Picture Awards from the National Society of Film Critics and the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle. Beautifully adapted by William Goldman, who deservedly won an Oscar, sense is made of a complicated book, and placed in sequence we follow Watergate from the break in, through to the White House connection knowing Nixon will be forced to resign. Brilliant, unsettling filmmaking at its very best.
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.