By John H. Foote
A five-part series exploring the ten greatest films ignored for Best Picture in their respective year, my hope is not to condemn the Academy by explore that greatness has often been overlooked, just as often as it has been rewarded. Before the Oscars are handed out this year, I promise to write a post or two on when the Academy got it right, spot on with no argument, and it has happened quite often.
Since the forties there had always been five nominees for Best Picture which of course meant some very fine films were going to be left out, but it is those very films we need to bring to attention. How were they snubbed, often in favour of lesser, flavour of the moment films that faded from view as the years slipped by while the ignored masterpieces grew in stature through the years? If you follow the Oscars as we do, you know it happens, and in fact some of the greatest films ever made have been overlooked for Best Picture and other major awards.
City Lights (1931), King Kong (1933), Modern Times (1936), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Searchers (1956), Some Like It Hot (1959), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) represent just a small example of the many brilliant accomplishes ignored by the Academy for Best Picture.
In the last fifty years the same occurrence has taken place, great films have been snubbed in favour of weaker films. Who knows why? This is part one of a series, the seventies, and ten films they missed for Best Picture.
Alan J. Pakula’s tense and stylish thriller is built perfectly around the stunning performance of Jane Fonda as a call girl trying to be an actress. Stalked by one of her twisted clients, she is frightened and when a caring cop, John Klute (Donald Sutherland), comes looking for a friend who has disappeared and might be related to the case, they begin spending time together. As Bree Daniels, Fonda not so much opened doors for women in film as kick them open and stomp on them with her shocking, realistic performance. She is fearless as Bree, beautiful but willing to look slutty, willing to be an ugly person, willing to humiliate men, but sharp enough to know what she feels for Klute is real and he is there to protect her from a very real danger. She won the Academy Award for her performance, her first, and her performance is highly regarded as one of the greatest in film history. The film is a rock-solid mystery thriller, with a very dangerous man out to do harm to Bree, as she dances ever closer to the flame. Unsettling and remarkable.
THE LAST DETAIL (1973)
Superbly directed by the great, underappreciated Hal Ashby, the film offered Jack Nicholson one of his greatest roles as Badass Buddusky, a salty, profane sailor who is a lifer in the Navy and knows it. He draws an easy assignment, to escort a shy young sailor to jail for stealing a donation box, and his initial plan is to deliver the kid and then hit the town for some drinking and women. But when he meets the kid, portrayed slyly by Randy Quaid, he finds himself liking him, feeling sorry for him, because eight years for such a small crime is just not fair. He knows what jail will do to this kid. So he and his partner decide to show the kid one last good time on the town, getting him a hooker, getting him drunk and giving him some much needed confidence. Nicholson was born to play this part, cocky, confident, tough, loud and yet compassionate. They deliver the kid, just as they were ordered to do, but you just know the kid lived more in those few days than in his life entire. Gritty and powerful, the film remains a masterpiece, after all these years.
Godard once said the only thing you need to make a film is “a guy, a girl and a gun” which he did with his groundbreaking Breathless (1959) and in making Badlands on a shoestring budget, Terrence Malick heeded those words. Based loosely on the crime spree of Charles Starkweather, who murdered 10 innocent people over a 10-day period for no apparent reason other than they were in his way, it is a stark, sparse film, with wide open spaces and high skies. Martin Sheen is Kit, a violent young man who plucks a young girl, Sissy Spacek, off her front porch, killing her father and taking her with him on an adventure. She goes because he looks like James Dean, and does not seem to mind the killing, and has no real fear of Kit. As the police close in, he knows they will get caught, and that a death sentence awaits him. Sheen is electrifying as Kit, dangerous and moody, and Spacek equally good as the starry-eyed young girl ripe for the picking. One of the most influential films of the decade, inspiring Quentin Tarantino and such films as Natural Born Killers (1994), True Romance (1993) and Kalifornia (1993). Still Malick’s greatest work.
THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975)
John Huston had wanted to make this for years, at one point with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, then Humphrey Bogart and James Stewart, finally making it in the seventies with Sean Connery and Michael Caine. Based on the famous Rudyard Kipling book, it deals with two rascals from the British army who convince a city of ancient people living off the grid that Connery is the direct descendant of Alexander the Great and thus entitled to the mountains of gold they have held in wait for his return. During a battle, Connery is shot with an arrow and pulls it out, leaving the people in awe of him, which goes directly to Connery’s head, eventually asking his friend to bow in front of him to maintain the charade. A big broad exotic adventure, it really was one of the last of its kind, and one of the finest films of Huston’s career. Connery and Caine were never better in their entire careers, Connery especially. Watching him find the worship of the people intoxicating, he begins to believe that he just be the real descendant of Alexander. The film has a grand epic sweep, and beautifully explores the disintegration of a jolly good friendship between the two men. When found out that Connery is a fraud, each meets a terrible fate. Brilliant.
MARATHON MAN (1976)
“Is it safe?” might be the three most terrifying words uttered by a film character in movie history. In this superb adaptation of the William Goldman novel, Dustin Hoffman is a brilliant history student, swept into a nightmare of living history. He comes to New York when an old Nazi dentist, Szell (Laurence Olivier) comes to collect his diamonds after the death of his brother. Turns out Hoffman’s brother was among the couriers for the old dentist and he fears being robbed when he leaves the bank. He kills the brother, and then captures a completely oblivious and innocent Hoffman and tortures him with his dental instruments, thrusting a probe into a live cavity and then later drilling into a good tooth to hit the nerve. The old man really has no clue the young student knows nothing, other than who Szell is. Olivier, who I never cared for as an actor, is perfect for the role, his chilly remoteness working well as Dr. Szell, but it is Hoffman who is the miracle here, superb as he gradually becomes aware of who this monster is. Directed with taut, tight tension by John Schlesinger, it was a huge hit with audiences and critics, but oddly not the Academy. That said, 1976 was a very strong year.
BLACK SUNDAY (1977)
Probably the greatest film of the seventies to be snubbed was Black Sunday. It remains the finest film about international terrorism I have ever seen. Nearly 50 years later, with 9-11 still burning in our minds, this film, based on the novel by Thomas Harris was extraordinary. Filmed with documentary realism by the great, underrated John Frankenheimer, the film deals with the Black September terrorist organization plans to blow up the Super Bowl, the 80,000 fans and the U.S. President, who plans to attend. They have recruited a deeply damaged Vietnam veteran, Lander (Bruce Dern), who often pilots through the worst weather, the Goodyear blimp to unleash their horror, and build their lethal bomb. Marthe Keller was terrific as the avenging terrorist, like a mad latter-day Joan of Arc, absolutely confident in her beliefs, while Robert Shaw is superb as the Israeli Secret police sent to stop the event. That said the film belongs, heart and soul, to the great Bruce Dern as Lander, a stunning, heartbreaking and yet terrifying performance as a man betrayed by everything he held near and dear. Well reviewed, though never the box office hit Paramount had hoped for, it was ignored in every single category. Shameful. Dern should have won Best Actor. Period.
LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR (1977)
A dark cautionary tale about a young schoolteacher and her secret life of cruising bars and picking up strange men to take home for sex is a tough watch, but a compelling performance from Diane Keaton makes it worthwhile. Directed by Richard Brooks from the bestselling novel, Keaton gives perhaps her finest performance as Theresa, a pretty young woman who is terribly promiscuous and will pay dearly for it. Among the men she picks up are a hyperactive sex machine played by a very young, very exciting Richard Gere, and her eventual killer, an impotent cowboy portrayed with brutal honesty by Tom Berenger. 1977 was filled with great films and I see why the Academy might have chosen to ignore this one, it is dark, violent and ends with a horrific murder, but what a powerful, important film it was. And Keaton won the Oscar that year for Annie Hall but could have just as easily won for her performance in this. Sadly, not available on Region One Blu Ray. A great, towering character study.
BEING THERE (1979)
Another great film from Hal Ashby, who during a magnificent run in the seventies was nominated only for Coming Home (1978), his superb Vietnam character study that won Oscars for Jon Voight and Jane Fonda. Here he works from the novel by Jerzy Kosinski about a simple-minded man who ends up through sheer accident, walking the halls of great power, advising the President, and who might just end up the President himself. Chance is television educated, a simpleton, a gardener for a wealthy man who has died, and now homeless after being hit by a car he is taken in by the wife of a great Senator. They become fast friends and then he meets the President, and speaking in literal terms about the garden, the President believes he is speaking in metaphors about the economy and hails him a genius. Peter Sellers gives the finest performance of his career as the childlike Chance, forever obsessed with television, walking across a pond of water at the end of the film, suggesting he might be a Christ figure. Blackly comic, Ashby drew superb work from the entire cast which included Melvyn Douglas, Shirley MacLaine and Jack Warden. An extraordinary film.
Though he won Best Director and Best Picture two years earlier for Annie Hall, make no mistake, Manhattan is the finest film of Woody Allen’s long career. Shot lovingly in black and white, and New York always looks best in black and white, the film is as much a love letter to that fair city as it is a love story between characters. Allen is a fortyish television writer dating a seventeen-year-old high school girl portrayed to perfection by Mariel Hemingway the wisest character in the film, Tracey. He breaks up with her, devastating the teenager, because he believes he wants to be with Mary (Diane Keaton) a pretentious snob who looks down on the entire human race but only because she feels she is unworthy of love. Only at the end does he realize he is in love with Tracey and despite their years it might work. But she is headed off to England to study drama, and he fears losing her. She tells him with that constant wisdom that he needs to have a little faith in people and learn to trust them. Superbly acted, directed, written and shot, the film is a lovely piece of cinematic genius that should have been nominated for several Oscars. Again, in a long, impressive career, Allen did his finest work right here.
When Hollywood heard Academy Award winning Milos Forman was making a film out of the rock and roll play Hair, there were snickers heard through the film industry. Many thought it unfilmable, others believed the time had passed and its message was no longer worthy of being spread, that it had long ago lost its relevance. When the film opened and the characters arrived in Central Park to the soaring song “Age of Aquarius”, Forman plunged the audience back in time to the sixties and created one of the greatest film musicals ever made. Hair was extraordinary, breathtaking, well reviewed though it struggled at the box office. The message, peace, flowers, beads, love, happiness, was heard loud and clear through the film, and the story emerged deeply moving and very powerful. The film, through choreography and the famous music, captured the hippie counterculture movement of the sixties to perfection, the dancing free and limber, filled with such joy in the movements. Treat Williams, Beverly D’Angelo, John Savage and Annie Golden were among the cast of relative unknowns, each remarkable in the film, though they did not do their own singing. Forman wanted the songs to soar, believing they had such a profound impact and he needed that to happen to again. Quite simply one of the greatest musicals ever made and should have been a Best Picture nominee in a very strong year at the movies.
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.