Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Oscar 1970, The Finale: Best Movie

The five nominated "Best Picture" films can be identified by a line (or two) that defines each of them:

-"My late husband played the violin. Not professionally, but he was very good. He once played the Minute Waltz in 58 seconds." Helen Hayes (Ada Quonsett) "Airport"
-"Love means never having to say you're sorry". Ai McGraw (Jenny) and Ryan O'Neal (Oliver) "Love Story"
-"I want you to hold (the chicken) between your knees." Jack Nicholson (Bobby DuPea), "Five Easy Pieces"
-"Suicide is painless; it brings on many changes."  (Mike Altman and Johnny Mandel's theme from "M*A*S*H")
-"Oh Frank my lips are hot. Kiss my hot lips."  Sally Kellerman (Major Margaret Houlihan) "M*A*S*H"
-"No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country." George C. Scott (General George Patton) "Patton".

In 1970 America was in the middle of an impossible war that divided the country.  Sexual roles and mores were changing, and the battlefields of love were ever more treacherous.  The older generation fought to protect their values and ideals against a younger generation that sought to expose hypocrisy and change everything.  The news was filled with riots, crime, even airline hijackings.  People wanted to root for heroes, lampoon the status quo, cry at bittersweet, old-fashioned romance, feel the vicarious thrills of a dangerous world. They came to the movies to make sense of things, feel a part of something, share an experience, be altered in some way.  All they needed to do was attend the Oscar-nominated Best Pictures.

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"Airport" was sort of an anomaly in the Oscar race, an attempt by the old-guard members of the Motion Picture Academy to cling to the star-studded, crowd-pleasing melodrama that was an Oscar staple since "Grand Hotel".  Based on a popular novel by Arthur Hailey, this movie was old-fashioned all the way, from its improbable subplots down to its veteran crew.  Alfred Newman, who won 9 Oscars for music, composed his final, Oscar-nominated score here (he died soon after the film was released). George Seaton, who wrote and directed many classic films through the 1940's (including "Song of Bernadette" and "Miracle on 34th Street") wrote the screenplay and directed.  The cast was a roster of movie heavyweights, including Burt Lancaster, Jean Seberg, George Kennedy, Jacqueline Bissett, Dean Martin (!), Van Heflin, Lloyd Nolan, and Oscar nominees Maureen Stapleton and this year's Supporting Actress winner Helen Hayes.  If you're in the mood for giddy, mindless fun and suspense, there are the requisite love affairs, your typical cute old lady stowaway, a sinister, desperate bomber, innocent passengers in mortal danger, and an impressive explosion that rips a hole in the plane, causing a pressure imbalance that sucks anyone or anything out into the freezing atmosphere. The crisis unites the all of the (surviving) members of the cast in a suspenseful climax, as a snowbound plane must be forced off the Chicago runway to make room for an emergency landing for our frightened passengers. This was the beginning of the hugely popular disaster-film genre that invaded theaters and Oscar competitions throughout the 1970's. "Airport" was technically well-made (it received a total of 10 nominations, tied with "Patton" as the most of any film in 1970) and makes a concession to modern film technique with its use of the split screen (so well-used in "Woodstock", a movie that is light years apart from "Airport" in style and ideology.) But films were moving in so many exciting new directions, after the win last year for the ground-breaking "Midnight Cowboy", that it seemed like too big a step backward to hold up "Airport" as the finest example of professional filmmaking.  It's nomination, which could easily have gone to "Women in Love" or "Woodstock" or "Fellini Satyricon" or "Joe" , would have to suffice.  It was perhaps one of the most purely entertaining films of the year, and it was a last hurrah for a veteran Hollywood elite, and so its nomination makes historical, if not artistic, sense.

"Love Story" made it cool for hip modern film audiences to cry again at movies. What could you say about a 25-year-old girl who died? Whatever it was, audiences in 1970 were fascinated by the tender and tragic account of a privileged Harvard Law student and a poor Radcliffe music major who found a love that defined a generation.  Viewers willingly wept their way to making this the biggest box-office hit of the year. If it sounds maudlin by today's standards, it had its naysayers even then.  But a couple things elevated "Love Story" into a realm worthy of attention. First were its occasional convention-defying attitudes and sequences: Until now, a sympathetic heroine did not use words like "bullshit"  (Eric Segal loosened the language even more in his best-selling novelization of the screenplay);  the lead romantic couple was not supposed to reject God, especially in front of her sweet Italian-Catholic father;  and couples in movies never before argued about love and forgiveness of one's in-laws.  Second was the look of the film.  Ali McGraw became a fashion role-model for countless co-eds around America.  The snow-frolics and the ice skating, the montages of their drudgery as they struggled without familial wealth or support, look commercial-glossy today, but then were powerfully reassuring images of what modern love without sexual experimentation or drugs looked like.  Finally, the one thing that made "Love Story" the smash success it was, aside from its attractive protagonists, was its music score. Francis Lai's theme has been parodied so often that it is almost impossible for viewers of a certain age to watch the first few minutes of this film without snickering.  And yet the score was as well-known and identifiable as any film music ever written.  Sure, the swelling strings and piano add an unnecessary level of melodrama to the story.  But notice how there is no music at all playing during the final scenes between Jenny and Oliver and soon after as Oliver meets Jenny's father in the waiting room.  It is to the filmmaker's great credit that they realized the resolution to the story was moving without resorting to artificial emotional heighteners.  (In the 1960's and 70's, popular music and especially movie music that sought to be "modern" used the harpsichord, which is heard here in several key sequences.  Does anyone else miss the harpsichord in movie soundtracks like I do?)  The music for "Love Story" accounted for its only win in 7 nominations.  ( I still think Clint Eastwood borrowed the quiet little tune that underscored Jenny's final walk in his score for "Million Dollar Baby.") "Love Story" is no longer taken very seriously, and is never mentioned in lists of greatest Oscar-nominated films.  I would say that the movie has been underrated, even if its attitudes and style may appear less relevant to today's tech-loving film-goers.

"Five Easy Pieces" appealed to the same maverick film buffs that reveled in the bawdiness of "M*A*S*H"  but preferred their subversiveness scored to classical or country music. Like the anti-hero protagonist Bobby DuPea, portrayed brilliantly by Jack Nicholson, "Five Easy Pieces" is a film of continual contradictions and constant surprises, leading up to a deliciously ambiguous finale. It is certainly one of my favorite films of 1970, one that I have grown to admire more every time I re-visit it.  The Academy could not deny the brilliance of the writing or acting, but somehow failed to cite Bob Rafelson in the Director's category, so its Best Picture nomination seemed doomed from the start.  It is a solid film that certainly deserves each of its four nominations, and it was the only one of the five nominated Best Pictures in 1970 that went home empty-handed.  Still, "Five Easy Pieces" did not need Academy recognition to become an iconic work of the era, or one of the most popular and well-remembered movies of the 1970's.  Almost everyone knows and loves the raucous showdown between Nicholson and a waitress who guards her wheat toast like her virtue, and Jack's slow dismantling of her hostility. It is a hard film to warm up to at first, in spite of these wildly funny moments in the midpoint.  The movie constantly shifts perspective, as we see revealed to us more of Bobby's past, his resultant ennui and desire to keep running to something new.   As I stated earlier, this is Nicholson's best work.  It is almost a companion piece to "Easy Rider": the appearance of Nicholson, the BBS production group that created both films, its alienated central character who is unsure of who he is or where he belongs, even the word "Easy" in the title.

I used to think that the five easy pieces referred to coins, or gold pieces, as Bobby appears to want to keep his life uncomplicated, and earns money in ways well beneath his talents. But the best interpretation is the reference to five classical songs played within the film; Bobby is so talented that these often complicated compositions are easy for him to play; and as is pointed out by him, and later to him, he can play them without feeling them because he doesn't know who he is.  He goes home to visit an ailing father and has a sort of reconciliation.  As he reflects on the prospect of returning to his oil-rigger existence and life with his sexual but intellectually unsatisfying girlfriend, Nicholson makes one of the most controversial choices ever to conclude an American film.  It's a movie to ponder, and it is easy to identify with Nicholson in the lead.  This would have received my vote, if not for the appearance in this category of one very unusual war film. 

For anyone who went to the movies in 1970 to be a part of something, to feel part of a movement of some kind, or feel like they were in on the revolutionary joke, or to feel like they were invited to the hippest party in town and send up the Establishment, the place to be was Robert Altman's Vietnam-by-way-of-Korea mind-blower, "M*A*S*H".  This is a funny, politically incorrect,  brilliant piece of controlled anarchy that will have you either seething with political offense, or laughing at its original (and now familiar) set-pieces while you  avert your eyes from some shocking and gruesome operating room dramatics.  So many ingredients went into making this my favorite film of 1970.  Part of it was that I felt left out of the cinematic conversation then, because the rating system rendered the important, life-altering work on American screens forbidden to me.  When I got to see "M*A*S*H", I was finally invited to the party and it was more fun than I imagined...and it made me think more deeply than I had ever done before. 

These characters were heroic in their effort to save the lives of their friends--even some enemies--from the ravages of battle. In order to maintain their sanity in the gruesome and often boring Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, they resort to outrageous and often cruel pranks that have the effect of building morale and bringing them closer as a medical unit.  At the same time, they are such talented life-savers (and so compassionate under the bravado) that they can give the finger to conventionality, and thumb their noses at the brass who stupidly ordered them into the mess they are in.  Every scene is a classic, and a few--like the suicidal "Last Supper", or the revelation of Major Hot Lips Houlihan's true colors in the shower, caused a big stir at the time.  I especially loved: Lieutenant Dish's wistful smile into the camera, as she ascends in her helicopter after a splendid night with Painless, the best equipped dentist in the army; the hilarious loudspeaker announcements and musical interludes by Radio Tokyo; the subplot that takes our heroes to Tokyo, complete with purposely badly-dubbed Japanese dialog; and a fabulously underhanded football game involving the whole cast. Every social topic, from racism, sexism, homophobia, religious zeal, even cheating and protecting the underdog, got irreverent treatment.  The film took chances with its recorded sound to replicate the din of many conversations, was shot with excellent muddy camerawork and great use of zoom lens, and surprised us with the satirical spoken credits at the end.  "M*A*S*H*" was ignored by 20th-Century-Fox on the studio back lot, (while "Patton" and "Tora Tora Tora" were being made at the same time) and the fact that it got made and distributed is testament to its subversive good humor. The TV series is a sorry imitation with none of the savage wit and political devil-may-care.  This would get my Oscar vote. Finest kind.  That is all. 

Combining a lucid WWII historical drama, pageantry and excellent battle sequences, witty and intelligent writing, and a lead performance that masterfully held it all together, "Patton" satisfied the Hollywood old-guard while intriguing younger members who could see Patton as both a lunatic who represented all military,or a rebel who fought against his own command for his beliefs.  While it was not the most creatively inspiring work for me on a personal level, its Best Picture win makes a lot of sense in retrospect.   Producer Frank McCarthy had been in discussion with the Patton family and the US military since the early 1950's in order to get this film made.  He commissioned recent film-school graduate Francis Ford Coppola to co-write the screenplay and scored the coup of landing George C. Scott in the title role. 

"Patton" was almost universally praised, from its mastery of logistics in moving casts of thousands in battle sequences, complete with heavy arms and no computer-generated effects, to its clever and witty dialogue,  much of it revealing detail about the controversial figure that was George S. Patton.  Scott lobbied to place the film's famous opening speech at the end, feeling it would too heavily dominate the rest of the film.  As it turned out, the opening speech with an older Patton laid the groundwork for the profane, funny, dangerous and mysterious character we would follow for the next three hours.  This is a big epic that Hollywood loves to reward, for the effort usually, but here the effort resulted in one truly intelligent and moving portrait of a figure who represented the troubling state of the world at war, then and now.  Aside from the speech, I enjoyed Patton's first encounter with his slack army, as he laid down the ground rules to late risers, and cleaned barracks walls of all pinups (after allowing himself an admiring peek).  Scott also demonstrates Patton's vulnerability when his careless public speaking results in him losing command for a time. This was a big winner in 1970 with 7 of its 10 nominations resulting in wins, including Director (Franklin Schaffner) Screenplay, editing and Sound.  It is a rousing and absorbing film that I enjoy watching..even though it does not represent to me the groundbreaking excellence of a MASH or Five Easy Pieces. But "Patton" is a worthy recipient of Oscar's best.

Thank you for following my 1970 Series.  Next up: a review of a novel, "Another Enchanted April"; John Barry; a Ground-Hog Day bittersweet memory; and how we survived the upcoming blizzard.


  1. Do you think a disaster movie like that will ever be a big Oscar spectacle again (other than in 1997)? I mean, I watched Airport a rather long time ago and even then I knew something was up - it definitely didn't seem like a Best Picture sort.

  2. Only one other disaster movie has been nominated for Best Picture: The Towering Inferno (1974). At least that was a great movie that one could make a case for.

    Airport bored me to death when I caught it on TCM 11 years ago. I've tried revisiting it, but it just drags and drags, going nowhere for 100 minutes until they finally get on the plane.

    Love Story was OK but Best Picture material? Hell no!

    M*A*S*H would have gotten my vote. It was my favorite film from 1970 also. Patton was a close second and Five Easy Pieces was third.

    I would have liked to have seen Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes get some serious recognition. It's such a rich film that blends comedy and drama very skillfully. And it's a testament to Wilder's skills that the movie survived losing 90 minutes of the intended 3 1/2 hour length. It should have been a Best Picture nominee.

    The fifth slot should have gone to either Woodstock or Gimme Shelter. Two of the best music docs ever made.

  3. A fitting conclusion to a great series, thanks for the hard work Tom.

    I probably would've gone for Patton, it's portrait of a flawed character does it for me. Whereas M*A*S*H seems even less focussed than Altman's later works and loses it's way in the final third.

    Disaster movies have begun to try harder and harder to outdo the effects and have rather forgot the best ones rely on good characterisation, hence it's unlikely another one will get a best pic nomination. Although Lars von Trier' Melancholia might turn the tide.

  4. Thanks, Luke, Bill, and Ben for checking in and commenting! I enjoy writing these series very much, and it is gratifying to have such articulate readers express your thoughts.

    After Airport, Towering Inferno, and of course, Titanic, it appears that the disaster genre, while not completely finished, has fallen out of critical favor. I am not familiar yet with Melancholia, but it is intriguing.

    I suppose the only way this type of film will ever win a Best Picture is if it combines cutting-edge effects with a story that moves audiences to its foundations. If Holywood ever attempts an honest, non-melodramatic account of 9/11, it might have a shot.

    I appreciate all of your diverse opinions on how you would have cast your votes for 1970.

    I look forward to 1971...and now, on to February 27 and this year's contest...which I will cover at length in the year 2051, LOL!