By John H. Foote
America celebrated her 200th birthday in style at the movies, with another massive summer laden with blockbusters, the year’s best film was a spring release, and at years end came a film that forever altered the landscape of American film, taking us away from the darkness of films previously acclaimed. It did not stop Hollywood from exploring the darker aspects of life, Vietnam, or socially challenging subjects, but feel good films began to emerge taking audiences out of the doldrums of everyday life, reminding us why the movies were created in the first place.
Two early releases had critics searching for superlatives, and stayed in theatres for most of the year, appearing on ten best lists at the end of the year and were firmly in the awards race. The first was All the President’s Men, a topical, urgent and very timely picture about the two reporters and how they figured out the complex scandal of Watergate. Easily the finest film ever made about journalism, it must be remembered this was in the days before Internet, laptops, iPads and cell phones, when reporting was a lot of leg work, and the absolute belief in what you were doing.
The second was Martin Scorsese’s searing Taxi Driver, a scalding film about a Vietnam veteran’s descent into madness and mayhem. Robert De Niro, having won an Academy Award for The Godfather Part II (1974) here established himself as one of America’s most important actors with a performance that remains terrifying to this day. Scorsese leaped into the forefront of American film directors with this picture and has never been out of the mix.
The summer was dominated by The Omen, a solid horror film starring Gregory Peck about the birth of the Antichrist, a strange looking little boy named Damien. Bolstered by a stunning, terrifying score, the film earned strong reviews and was a huge hit at the box office. Right behind it were Midway, Logan’s Run, and The Bad News Bears, all big hits with audiences and critics.
The fall gave us deeper films, more complex films that remained dark and explored the society currently existing in America. Sidney Lumet’s Network would superbly foreshadow the future of television, Marathon Man was an exceptional adaptation of the bestselling book, Bound for Glory was a handsome biography of folk singer Woody Guthrie, The Voyage of the Damned was an all-star cast aboard a doomed ship, while Carrie was the first of many Stephen King horror films to come to the big screen.
The Christmas releases saw A Star is Born be crucified by critics, as the massive ego of Barbra Streisand got in the way of making a film. Despite vicious reviews the film had a superb performance from Kris Kristofferson as a burnt-out rock star, superb cinematography and one of the finest song scores ever written for a film.
The much-awaited remake of King Kong thundered into cinemas also attacked by critics, but like A Star is Born was a huge hit with audiences, who ignored the terrible visual effects and dreadful narrative. Today it looks just awful especially when compared to the magnificent remake Peter Jackson gave us in 2005, a true work of art. The teaming of Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson was supposed to ignite the box office in The Missouri Breaks, but though interesting, underwhelmed. Much worse was Robert De Niro teaming with legendary director Elia Kazan for The Last Tycoon, which felt muted, lacking passion, displaying the first signs of limitation for the gifted actor.
1976 remains strange in that Rocky, a low budget feel good film, bested three of the greatest American films ever made. I understand why it won but have never agreed or supported the win.
The five worst films of the year are:
5. WON TON TON…THE DOG WHO SAVED HOLLYWOOD
A really stupid film that attempts to pay homage to the canine hero Rin Tin Tin and instead delivers a steaming pile of dog … well you get the drift. Bruce Dern, one of the seventies greatest actors, is wasted in every scene, leaving anyone who endures the film wondering why he took the part.
With the staggering success of Jaws (1975) it was only a matter of time before copycat films started popping up, with huge creatures prowling the woods, streets, wherever. This was the first and worst of them, a truly lame film about a massive grizzly bear, so powerful he takes a horse’s head off with one paw. I am sure I saw that same horse head in the bed of the movie producer in The Godfather. Unwatchable.
3. THE SHADOW OF THE HAWK
A Canadian film, which in the seventies really was more often than not a bad thing. Merging native mysticism with modern day happenings, Jan Michael Vincent and Chief Dan George wander around looking mystified that they took the job. Just awful.
Margaux Hemingway then a red-hot fashion model, granddaughter of the great writer is a woman raped by her sister’s teacher, though no one believes her until he rapes the younger sister, portrayed by the gifted Mariel Hemingway. Chris Sarandon is over the top and slimy as the rapist who gets what he deserves from Hemingway’s rifle. Irresponsible and dumb.
1. A MATTER OF TIME:
The great director Vincent Minnelli got a chance to direct his Oscar winning daughter Liza in this wretched film that offers nothing for Liza to do, does not showcase her substantial gifts, and really ended the great filmmaker’s career. As low as he could go, this was in and out of theatres in two weeks.
THE TEN BEST FILMS OF 1976
10. BOUND FOR GLORY
Hal Ashby directed this exquisite biography of folk singer, radical Woody Guthrie who wrote songs that spoke to America and the American people. Here portrayed by David Carradine, in a surprisingly effective performance, Ashby gets to the heart of who the man was, exploring him warts and all. Melinda Dillon is superb, as she always was in the seventies as his wife, and Ashby guides them gently with a creative, subtle hand. The cinematography won the Academy Award that year, superb in capturing America during the Depression. A Best Picture nominee.
9. FACE TO FACE
Ingmar Bergman was among the greatest directors in film history, discovered by American audiences in the fifties. Here, with his muse, actress Liv Ullman, he explores brilliantly a woman in the throes of a nervous breakdown. Ullman is astonishing, giving one of the screen’s greatest performances and richly deserved the Oscar nomination she received for Best Actress. Mental illness has rarely been acted with such painful honesty and raw, visceral power. Harrowing in every way, yet brilliant in its darkness.
Brian De Palma scored his first major box office success in bringing this Stephen King book to the screen. Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is very much an outsider and introvert, blessed, though her crazy mother tells her cursed with telekinetic powers, the ability to move objects with her mind. When a terrible joke is played on Carrie, and pigs blood dropped on her at the annual prom she unleashes her powers in the high school gym, killing those who have humiliated her. Spacek was eerie as Carrie and Piper Laurie was frightening as her God obsessed mother. Both actresses were Oscar nominees, the film was a smash and critics began a love fest with De Palma. Spacek’s wide eyed, blood drenched Carrie, moving through the carnage she is causing with her mind, is truly terrifying.
7. THE SHOOTIST
The last great American western made before the genre died (for a time) with Michael Cimino’s $44 million-dollar fiasco Heaven’s Gate (1980). Don Siegel directed this melancholy film about a gunfighter, J.B. Books (John Wayne) who comes to a booming, prosperous town to visit a doctor from his past. Learning he has cancer, advanced, he decides to stay close to the good doctor (portrayed with gentle wisdom by James Stewart) and die. Told the death from cancer will be terrible, Books begins to think of other ways to go out and perhaps do the town some good. He befriends a local widow, Mrs. Rogers (Lauren Bacall) and their friendship evolves into an autumnal love that cannot be. Ron Howard is her son, knows who Books is and idolizes him. Wayne is superb in the film, richly deserving of the Oscar nomination that did not come, deeply disappointing the actor. “I’m a dying man, afraid of the dark” he tells Mrs. Rogers sadly, knowing the end is near. Beautifully acted by the entire cast, though Wayne towers above them all, he was dying of cancer when he made the film, a grand stroke of irony. Paramount should be ashamed of themselves for how they threw the film into theatres in the summer, mostly drive ins, robbing the picture of a chance for an award for Wayne.
6. MARATHON MAN
Three words became among the most terrifying ever spoken in a film when Szell (Laurence Olivier) whispered to Babe (Dustin Hoffman), “Is it safe?” A Nazi dentist is forced to come out of hiding from Paraguay, when his brother is killed, to retrieve his millions in diamonds, taken from Jews at the death camps. When he thinks his couriers plan to rob him, he kills one of them, the brother to a brilliant young historian, Babe, who knows nothing about Szell other than what books have taught him. The dentist captures Babe and tortures him, ramming a dental probe into his cavity, drilling a hole into a fresh tooth, the pain unbearable, never counting on Babe, a long-distance runner being able to endure. Dustin Hoffman gives one of his best performances as Babe, going toe to toe with Olivier doing career best work as Szell. In his entire career, this is the only time I truly believed Olivier as an actor, every other time I felt he could be seen “acting”. Not here, he is terrifying as Szell. John Schlesinger directed the film from William Goldman’s script, adapting his own bestseller. The best sequences are those in the diamond district where Szell walks among the Jews, and slowly they begin to recognize the monster from their past walking among them.
Sylvester Stallone, a struggling young actor, wrote the script for this in three days and tried to sell it around Hollywood. Several studios wanted it, but he insisted on playing the lead, and no one wanted him. Stallone would not budge, and eventually United Artists agreed to finance the film and allow Stallone to portray Rocky. What transpired is one of the great Cinderella stories in Hollywood lore. For less than one million dollars, with a journeyman director, John G. Avildsen the crew shot Rocky in and around Philadelphia. When released it was an immediate sensation, a film unlike anything anyone had before seen. A third-rate club fighter, Rocky is given the one in a million chance of fighting the world heavyweight champ, Apollo Creed, obviously modelled on the great Ali for the championship of the world. It is a publicity stunt that the champ does not take seriously, but Rocky does, as does his manager, something that catches Apollo’s manager eye. As he trains, Rocky falls in love with Adrian (Talia Shire) a pretty though painfully shy clerk from the local pet shop, each building the others self-esteem. On fight night, Rocky proves to have stunning power, much stronger than the champ expected and possessed of the ability to take a punch. The two men pound away on each other, each giving the other a terrible beating, but in the end despite going the distance, Creed is declared winner. Does Rocky care? He wins the girl and gains his self respect…more than he ever thought possible. Superb performances from Stallone, Shire, especially Burgess Meredith and Burt Young dominate the film, giving the film a gritty lived in feel. The film stunned Hollywood earning ten Academy Award nominations and won three, including Best Picture, Director and Film Editing. Overnight Stallone was a major star, never to attain these lofty heights again.
4. SEVEN BEAUTIES
For her film Seven Beauties, Italian director Lina Wertmuller became the first woman nominated for the Academy Award as Best Director. Never before in the history of the Academy had a woman broken through the ranks of the male dominated world to earn an Oscar nomination. Wertmuller had attracted attention the previous year for her superb shipwreck love story Swept Away (1975) but Seven Beauties was and remains, her masterpiece. Pasquilino (Giancarlo Giannini) accidentally kills a pimp who has turned one of his seven sisters into a prostitute and is jailed. From prison to insane asylum to concentration camp, Pasquilino shows remarkable resilience in surviving. In the concentration camp he decides to seduce the horrifying female commandant, an ugly vile sadist who enjoys making the men suffer. Professing love for her, she makes him make love to her, no easy task given the starvation and exhaustion he is dealing with, but he convinced her. She thanks him in a most cruel way, by making him choose six men to die, among them his friends. Giannini is extraordinary as Pasquilino, his hangdog expression perfect and those huge soulful eyes showing the terrible pain he is experiencing. The sequence where he professes his love to the hideous, monstrous commandant is stunning as we watch a man do whatever it takes to survive. And the great irony? He returns to his mother and sisters to learn they have all become prostitutes to stay alive. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Actor, Best Director, Best Screenplay (Wertmuller) and Best Foreign Language Film. This was the first truly great foreign language film I remember seeing in the seventies that had a profound impact on me.
3. TAXI DRIVER
Martin Scorsese’s seething character study about a cab driver slipping into insanity was an extraordinary film, containing the most shocking and realistic violence ever seen in an American film. Robert De Niro, as Travis Bickle, an isolated man who has withdrawn from society sees New York as an open sewer that he wants to clean up. Driving at night he sees the dregs of humanity, the worst kind of human beings, drug addicts, pimps, criminals and hookers, all who disgust him on a level he cannot truly understand. An insomniac he spends his nights driving and his days at pornographic theatres, or watching daytime television, dreaming of cleaning up the city. Through contacts at work he buys an arsenal of weapons and teaches himself how to use each, fashioning handmade gadgets to surprise his victims. And he forever prowls the night streets, befriending a 12-year old hooker, Iris (Jodie Foster), unnerving her confident, hyperactive pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel). When he approaches a pretty campaign worker, Betsy (Cybill Shepard) for the up and coming candidate, their date ends in disaster when he takes her to a triple x film which disgusts her. Try as he might she does not forgive him or offer a second chance. We know throughout the film Travis is a ticking time bomb and when he explodes it is in a carnage of blood. After failing to assassinate the political candidate he turns his rage on Sport and his cronies, massacring them as he moves through the whore house, saving Iris (he believes), returning her to her parents, elevated to hero status by his actions. Yet at the end of the film we catch his eyes in the rear-view mirror and realize the bomb has started ticking down again, and Travis will kill again, and again. De Niro was electrifying in the film, his bland narration letting us know the descent into madness has begun, his thoughts muddled, lying to his parents (if they even exist) until the moment he shoots Sport and he is released from his pain. It is an astounding performance, by far the year’s best, beautifully supported by Foster, and Keitel. Scorsese’s camera slides around New York, documenting the hell of what it once was, the filth that lived in Times Square, the squalor that sets Travis off. The darkest film of the seventies, it is also among the best. Nominated for four Academy Awards, Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Screenplay, it won nothing but won several major awards from the critics’ groups.
Television forever changed in the early 2000’s, reality programming began dominating the air waves no matter how silly or stupid the idea was. In Network, Sidney Lumet’s extraordinary black comedy that is also a satire, writer Paddy Chayefsky seemed to foretell what TV would become with his scalding narrative about network TV. The fictional American network UBS is in competition for ratings with ABC, CBS and NBC the big three at the time. When their news anchor, Howard Beale (Peter Finch) has a meltdown on live TV he is fired but asks for a chance to say goodbye to his viewers, which the network allows. He comes back and announced he was tired of the bullshit, and the ratings go through the roof. Sensing something is about to happen with Beale, programming executive Diana (Faye Dunaway) asks to take over the news division and watches as Beale has a full scale breakdown on TV, in the throes of some higher power he demands people scream “I’m as mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore”. And they do. Out their windows, city blocks are filled with ordinary citizens screaming what will become Beale’s mantra. Diana, ignoring the man is mentally ill, turns him into the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves, allowing him to go on TV and rant about whatever he pleases. His friend, Max (William Holden) former head of the news division looks on in horror but not so much that he does not sleep with Diana. In the end, Howard goes too far, and in a conference room the heads of UBS decide to kill him live on TV, which will get a helluva rating … and that is exactly what they do. The film was loaded with brilliant performances, three of them Oscar winners, Dunaway, Finch and Beatrice Straight, winners all with Holden receiving his last nomination and Ned Beatty nominated for his God-like CEO. Robert Duvall was equally deserving for his nasty network boss, standing by supporting Diana’s irresponsibility so long as the ratings are there. Lumet directs like he is making a documentary, aiming the camera and letting his actors speak the glorious screenplay Chayefsky wrote for them, which also won an Oscar as Original Script. Truthfully, Finch winning Best Actor felt wrong because his was very much a supporting role, and he easily would have won that. He died before he would win the award, the first posthumous acting win. So good on so many levels it is astonishing in how it holds up 40 years later, still searing in what it is saying, still biting in its accuracy of the power of television.
1. ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN
An absolute masterpiece. Superbly directed by Alan J. Pakula, who had the good sense to make it a suspense thriller, written with stunning beauty by William Goldman who made sense of the book and Watergate nightmare (so much information), and acted to perfection by a marvelous ensemble cast. Robert Redford bought the rights to the book very early and produced the film, as well as taking the key role of writer Bob Woodward. He and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) were reporters at the Washington Post when Watergate broke, which in the beginning seemed like a botched break-in that might run a couple of articles and die off. But the further the two men explored, the dirtier the break in got, reaching first into the White House, and then directly into the office of President Nixon. Bit by bit the two reporters tear down the lies, the walls of deceit covering up the break in, protecting Nixon, until they know they have it. Ben Bradlee, Editor of the Post, superbly portrayed by Jason Robards takes a huge risk but believes his boys, trusts their instincts but also his own, he knows they are onto to something because he reads every word of what they are writing and follows their research. In the days before computers, CNN, cell phones, and most of all Internet, reporting was a lot of foot work, false leads, and research. There is one magnificent shot that is the perfect metaphor for what the two reporters are up against. They are in the Library of Congress going through index cards to find who checked certain books and the camera goes up, overhead, looking down on them, higher, ever higher until they look like ants moving through a massive area. Without knowing it they are at war with unseen and great powers until a source, known only as Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) begins meeting with Woodward to guide them, never telling them all he knows, but pointing them in the right direction, eventually telling them the scandal leads directly to Nixon. They persist and the final shot of the film shows the two reporters hammering out the story on their typewriters as Nixon enjoys the greatest re-election landslide win in American history. Eighteen months later he will resign in disgrace, brought down by the Washington Post and Watergate. Huge movie stars at the time of the film, both Redford and Hoffman settle into the film as part of an ensemble and do subtle, brilliant work, as great actors should but it is Jason Robards who shines brightest as Bradlee, a hard core newsman who trusts his boys because his own instincts are telling him they are onto something. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning four: for Robards as Best Supporting Actor, Screenplay Adaptation, Best Art Direction and Best Sound. All the President’s Men won Best Picture prizes from both the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle, soaring as one of the most acclaimed films of the seventies. That it lost to Rocky as Best Picture, remains a travesty.
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.