populism beats critical acclaim when Rocky triumphs at the Oscars in 1976

The 49th annual Academy Awards for the film year 1976.  The nominations were announced on February 10, 1977 and the awards were held on March 29, 1977.

Best Picture:  Rocky

  • All the President’s Men
  • Network
  • Taxi Driver
  • Bound for Glory

Most Surprising Omission:  Seven Beauties

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  The Outlaw Josey Wales

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #13

The Race: For the first time since 1970 there were no lingering contenders from the year before.  Instead the year opened with a new foreign film: Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties which was so captivating to people that she was offered deals from several Hollywood studios.  The Italian director was fairing better than her Italian-American contemporary, Martin Scorsese.  Scorsese’s latest film Taxi Driver had captivated no studios and he and star Robert De Niro had to cut their salaries to get the film made on a bargain budget.  Then they had to convince the California State Welfare Department that young Jodie Foster was adult enough to star as a child prostitute.  Then Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock’s favorite composer, got the score finished just a day before he died.  But in the end the film turned a strong profit and opened to strong reviews.

Two of the biggest films were straight from the headlines – All the President’s Men, which told the story of the two Washington Post reporters who helped to topple a presidency and the bitter dark satire on television, Network.  Both did very well with the critics and both made good money at the box office.  At Christmas came two more of the big films of the year: Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, which he wrote and starred in and finally convinced United Artists to make and Bound for Glory, the depression era biopic of Woody Guthrie.  Bound for Glory got good reviews but Rocky got better ones and became the number one box office champion of the year to boot.

This time the L.A. Film Critics, in their second year, were the first out of the gate and they proclaimed a tie between Rocky and Network (though they gave Director and Screenplay to Network).  But then came the National Board of Review and they began an avalanche towards All the President’s Men, which then won the New York Film Critics and became the first American film not directed by Robert Altman to ever win the National Society of Film Critics Award.  Taxi Driver was also not forgotten, picking up Best Director for Scorsese from the NSFC and three Best Actor awards for De Niro.

Network, All the President’s Men and Rocky were all major contenders at the Globes and Network took home the lion’s share, winning Director, Screenplay, Actor and Actress.  But Rocky took home the Best Picture – Drama trophy and suddenly made a race of things.  The guilds were split with both Network and Men winning WGA awards and Rocky taking the DGA.

The Results: Rocky and Network both were up for 10 nominations with All the President’s Men just behind with 8 and all three were up for Picture, Director, Screenplay and multiple acting awards.  Also in the Best Picture race were Bound for Glory and Taxi Driver, but both of them were without Director nominations.  Scorsese had been passed over for Wertmuller while Hal Ashby had lost out to Bergman, receiving only his second Oscar nomination for Best Director.

On Oscar night, things started out well for All the President’s Men.  By the time they got to the major awards it had won three Oscars while Rocky and Network only had one each.  After the writing awards, Men had four and Network had picked up a second.  But then Rocky took home Director and it looked like the race was over.  Indeed, while Network would take home the two biggest acting prizes, Rocky would win the final award of the night and be the overall champion, even though it had only earned three Oscars to Men and Network‘s four each.

the original Rocky - Best Picture winner in 1976 and better than all its sequels combined

Rocky

  • Director:  John G. Avildsen
  • Writer:  Sylvester Stallone
  • Producer:  Irwin Winkler  /  Robert Chartoff
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Burgess Meredith, Carl Weathers
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actor (Stallone), Actress (Shire), Supporting Actor (Meredith), Supporting Actor (Young), Editing, Sound, Original Song (“Gonna Fly Now”)
  • Oscar Points:  440
  • Length:  119 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Sports)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $117.23 mil  (#1  –  1976)
  • Release Date:  3 December 1976
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #12  (year)  /  #265  (nominees)  /  #58  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Editing, Original Score, Sound, Sound Editing, Original Song (“Gonna Fly Now”)
  • Nighthawk Points:  110

The Film:  It’s astounding to look back and realize that Talia Shire was the biggest thing in this film.  Here she was, already an Oscar nominated actress.  But Stallone was basically an unknown, Burt Young was an unknown (Inside Oscar even claims that this was his film debut, because apparently they did not see Chinatown) and John G. Avildsen was coming off a couple of cheap films for Troma.  Yet somehow this film rode a wave of populism to not only become a huge box office success, but also to win, first at the Golden Globes (the first film to win Best Picture – Drama without winning any other awards since 1960), then at the DGA and then, finally, at the Oscars.

Watching it today on DVD, it’s interesting to note the ways in which the film shines and the flaws that permeate throughout.  On the one hand, Stallone’s script feels very real; the characters talk like actual people and they really seem like they are from the neighborhood that they are in.  On the other hand, it is cliche-ridden from start to finish.  It has the courage of its convictions and the fight concludes in a way that most people wouldn’t expect and that few people tend to remember – Rocky actually loses the fight and it’s almost lost in the noise of the crowd.  Because the point isn’t that he lost – the point is that he made it to the end.  But, then again, the real conviction would have been to conclude with the original ending of Rocky slowing walking out of the silent ring, rather than the cry of “Adrian!”  Then there is the actual fight.  Watching it on DVD, it was stunning to realize how easy it was to see that so many of the blows don’t land.  It has always been one of the dangers of technology that older films don’t look as good, but this was really surprising.

I suppose it comes down to this.  Rocky is a very good film – it is well acted (I will not say it is Stallone’s one good performance because he is actually better in First Blood), solidly directed, solidly written and made with authenticity.  But when it comes down to it, it is still a cliche-ridden sports film.  That it does not as you would expect does not make it leap into greatness.  In year filled with the greatness of All the President’s Men, Network and Taxi Driver it is still a bad choice for Best Picture.

Journalists finally become heroes - the opposite of Five Star Final

All the President’s Men

  • Director:  Alan J. Pakula
  • Writer:  William Goldman  (from the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein)
  • Producer:  Walter Coblenz
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Robards, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Jane Alexander
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Supporting Actor (Robards), Supporting Actress (Alexander), Editing, Sound, Art Direction
  • Oscar Points:  370
  • Length:  138 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (True Story)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $51.04 mil  (#6  –  1976)
  • Release Date:  9 April 1976
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #52  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Robards), Supporting Actor (Balsam), Supporting Actress (Alexander), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction
  • Nighthawk Points:  595

The Film:  There are two different ways in which I could choose to write about this film.  On the one hand, it is expertly made.  It is incredibly smart, assumes that the audience is also smart (it gives you enough information so that the film is never confusing but it also assumes that you must have at least a passing knowledge of events going on here) and expertly combines a newspaper story with a detective story.  There is a great moment about half way into the film when Hugh Sloan tells the two intrepid Washington Post reporters “I’m a Republican,” and Bob Woodward replies “So am I.”  It is great partially because it is true, partially because of the great look that Bernstein then gives him and partially because it hasn’t been relevant.  Those two are reporters who are looking for the story and by damn, they are going to get it.  It has one of the best scripts ever adapted for film, is phenomenally directed, has a wonderful ensemble cast (though only Robards and Alexander earned nominations everyone in the cast is great and Robards very much deserved his Oscar) and has technical values that are second to none.  The music is suspenseful when it needs to be and moves along with the story when it doesn’t, the photography is great (especially that ending when it keeps both in view and in focus at different background positions while Nixon speaks on screen), has great sound (that magnificent sound of the typewriter as it opens the film and the news feeder as it ends the film more than earn it the Oscar) and the art direction is perfect because it’s real – they actually carted in waste and unused items from the Post newsroom.

For those reasons alone, it deserves all of the Oscars that it won and should have won several more (as is evidenced by its Nighthawk wins for Picture, Director, Editing and Cinematography).  It never drags for a minute, never gets too confusing and has an ensemble that’s second to none – an especially impressive feat in the same year as Network, Taxi Driver and Rocky.  But then are the other reasons that it speaks to me.  Precisely that.  It speaks to me.  I have a fondness for this film that goes beyond most films.  That I watched this film for the first time (I have seen it probably a dozen times) at a time when I was perfectly sliding into my learning curve for both politics and film marked me for life.

I watched this film for the first time in early 1989, a liberal living in conservative Orange County, even on some days in cross country running past Nixon’s birthplace (see note below).  I had just started keeping a record of all the films I was watching and this was one of the first truly great films that I watched during that period.  I was able to learn about how editing works, when the film needs to stick with something and when it needs to cut away.  I read the book immediately after first watching it and I was able to learn exactly how much you need to stick into the movie and at what point things will just start to confuse people.  I was watching the decay of the corrupt Nixon White House as the Reagan Era ended and memories of Iran-Contra were still stuck in my mind.  I learned that a film can say something and not say something at the same time.

There are those who argue for Network, those who argue in favor of Taxi Driver.  The Academy itself gave Best Picture to Rocky.  But I firmly place All the President’s Men at the head of this class.  It is a great film that tells an important story with first class talent.  It does it with veering too much into darkness, straying too much towards satire and without populist cliches.  It is, quite frankly, the best film of 1976.

Note: Watching this film, then reading the book began what can only be called a lifelong obsession with Richard Nixon.  I have a whole shelf worth of books on him and his White House, not limited by perspective (I have books by Nixon and Haldeman on the shelf) and while watching the film this time I was reading RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon.  Perhaps the finest piece I have ever read on him is the one by Hunter S. Thompson entitled “Presenting: The Richard Nixon Doll (Overhauled 1968 Model)” that originally appeared in Pageant in July, 1968 but can be found in The Great Shark Hunt.  A year ago or so a position opened up at the Nixon Library.  I desperately tried to get Veronica to apply, but my passion is not hers and she didn’t think she could do the job (or could stand doing the job is more like it).

But one of the most surreal events of my entire life happened on 17 July, 1990.  That day, our cross country coach decided we would go run on the Yorba Linda Bike Path.  At one point on the run I said to one of my teammates “There’s a lot of guys with guns over there.  Oh, and hey, there’s Nixon.  And Reagan.  And Ford.  And President Bush.”  Yes, our brilliant coach had decided to run us on the path that took us past the Richard Nixon Birthplace and Library on the day it was officially being dedicated.  The secret service looked at us and then apparently decided that the Villa Park Cross Country Team posed no threat.

Network - relevant in 1976, even more so now

Network

  • Director:  Sidney Lumet
  • Writer:  Paddy Chayefsky
  • Producer:  Howard Gottfried
  • Studio:  MGM / UA
  • Stars:  William Holden, Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Beatrice Straight, Ned Beatty
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actor (Finch), Actor (Holden), Actress (Dunaway), Supporting Actor (Beatty), Supporting Actress (Straight), Editing, Cinematography
  • Oscar Points:  490
  • Length:  121 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Social Satire)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $23.68 mil
  • Release Date:  14 November 1976
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #96  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Holden), Actor (Finch), Actress (Dunaway), Supporting Actor (Duvall), Supporting Actor (Beatty), Supporting Actress (Straight), Editing, Art Direction
  • Nighthawk Points:  450

The Film:  In some ways Network functions on the same levels as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but in a very real way it exceeds Cuckoo and succeeds in a way that Cuckoo can not.  Like Cuckoo, Network is ostensibly a drama, but one which straddles the line between social drama and satire.  The writing is so smart and observant that at times you are not certain if you are supposed to be crying or laughing.  Both of them, of course, are expertly directed and have some of the best acting of the decade – an impressive statement given some of the other acting in the seventies.

But Cuckoo is never meant to be a real life situation.  It deliberately moves away from reality in its depiction of mental health and while it has serious things to say about the way society looks after mental health (or fails to), and makes that commentary with both wit and seriousness, it is still not quite reality.  On the other hand, in the days after Patty Hearst and Watergate and the Christine Chubbuck suicide, Network was a closer look at reality than many of us would care to admit.  Network perfectly skewers network news, television, terrorism and modern society and does it without ever veering too far into satire.

Network was the first film since A Streetcar Named Desire to win three acting awards and the last film to receive five acting nominations.  The acting is so incredible that Beatrice Straight won an Oscar for a role that was less than five minutes long and Ned Beatty to this day, says “Take every acting job you can get.  I worked for one day on Network and got an Oscar nomination out of it.”  Peter Finch’s performance was worthy of an Oscar and it still only comes in third, because aside from De Niro, he also finishes behind William Holden’s electric performance as the head of the news division whose days are numbered, both in his job and potentially, his marriage.  Then there is Faye Dunaway, giving yet another phenomenal performance as a woman who would much rather get a good rating on television than in bed.  And there’s also Robert Duvall, who missed out on an Oscar nomination but was certainly worthy of one as the slimy executive that you desperately love to hate.  Paddy Chayefsky’s script is smart and incisive and always knows exactly where it is going and absolutely deserved its Oscar.

After back to back DGA nominations without Oscar nominations, Sidney Lumet finally earned back to back Oscar nominations.  Sadly, he didn’t win either time (he has never won) and he doesn’t win the Nighthawk either time (coming in second and third) and sadly, he has never won a Nighthawk Award either.  But he’s certainly earned his place among the Top 100 Directors of all-time and Network is one of the films that put him there.

How the Academy could nominate Taxi Driver but not Scorsese is beyond me

Taxi Driver

  • Director:  Martin Scorsese
  • Writer:  Paul Schrader
  • Producer:  Michael Phillips  /  Julia Phillips
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepard, Harvey Keitel
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Actor (De Niro), Supporting Actress (Foster), Original Score
  • Oscar Points:  140
  • Length:  113 min
  • Genre:  Horror  (Urban)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $21.10 mil
  • Release Date:  8 February 1976
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #106  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (De Niro), Supporting Actress (Foster), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound
  • Nighthawk Points:  385

The Film:  This film is not for everyone.  I’ve had to stress that to different people who have asked whether or not they need to see it.  It is a dark and desperate look at humanity.  While All the President’s Men was literally straight from the headlines, Taxi Driver, like Network and Rocky, found its inspiration in taking an actual story and giving it just enough of a push to turn it into fiction.  In many ways it the story of poor pathetic Arthur Bremer, the man who believed that shooting George Wallace (or Nixon, who was his first choice) was the answer to the problems of the country.  That poor crazed John Hinckley would then take his assassination idea from a film loosely based on a real attempted assassin just shows the surreal way that world works sometimes (thus the relevance of Network).

But Schrader and Scorsese just used Bremer as a jumping off point for a look at the seedy underside of life.  It’s not just the disingenousness of modern political campaigns or the musings of the crazed loner who believes that he has figured out what he needs to do to save the world (or save a soul).  This film is insightful about the way people interact, about relationships (just look at Scorsese’s dark, disturbing cameo), about how people who are desperate will reach out to other people who are desperate, about how just because people are trapped and desperate doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to be saved.

It’s easy to see how the Academy would watch this film and realize that they absolutely have to nominate De Niro and Foster (that they both should have won is another story).  It says something about the Academy in the seventies that they would also nominate the film (and of course, the dark, disturbing score, which also deserved to win).  But it also says something about how the director’s branch and cinematographer’s branch, two parts of the Academy that have always been resistant to change, would show how little they understood modern films in that Scorsese and Michael Chapman would fail to earn nominations.  The bleak look of New York life, contrasted against the bright lights of the city in the day, directed by an incredible talent who clearly knew the city inside and out was crying out for nominations.

I had a friend once who said that Taxi Driver was his favorite film.  I could never quite understand that.  I can’t understand how you can go back and back to this.  It’s so emotionally draining and the performances by De Niro and Foster leave you so completely wiped, I can’t imagine how anyone could ever watch it a second time, let alone again and again.  But what the hell do I know?  I’ve seen A Clockwork Orange over 20 times.

Woody Guthrie's music is part of America. It's too bad there's not more of it in the film.

Bound for Glory

  • Director:  Hal Ashby
  • Writer:  Robert Getchell  (from the autobiography by Woody Guthrie)
  • Producer:  Robert F. Blumofe  /  Harold Levanthal
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  David Carradine, Ronny Cox
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Editing, Cinematography, Costume Design, Original Song Score and Its Adaptation or Adaptation Score
  • Oscar Points:  200
  • Length:  147 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Musical Biopic)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Release Date:  5 December 1976
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #14  (year)  /  #269  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Cinematography
  • Nighthawk Points:  25

The Film:  Woody Guthrie’s life was rather interesting.  He was smart and talented and very political and he lived in dreary times and tried to make the best of it.  He left the dust bowl of Oklahoma and headed west (ironically he went before Steinbeck wrote about the Joads and while John Carradine went on that trip, here his son David, playing Woody, makes pretty much the same trip) and when he discovered that California really wasn’t all that great – they didn’t have any jobs there either and weren’t happy about all the Okies coming in to try and get them – he started to sing about it.  What resulted was possibly the single greatest talent that American music has ever known.  Certainly the most influential, for without Woody Guthrie, we have no Bob Dylan.

The good thing about Bound for Glory is how well-made it is.  It has great cinematography by Haskell Wexler that captures perfectly both the desperate landscape of Oklahoma in the midst of a dust storm and the lush, promised land of California.  It is well-directed by Hal Ashby, who, in the seventies, had in an incredible decade that included Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Coming Home and Being There, but was unable to keep his string of hits going and faded away in the eighties.  It has the best performance of David Carradine’s long career and is not afraid to be honest about the kind of man that Guthrie was (not exactly a saint).

But if you are going to make a film about Woody Guthrie, you really need to incorporate more of the music.  There are the occasional songs and such, but there is a reason that Bound for Glory isn’t up to the standard of Walk the Line or Ray.  For a man who is known so thoroughly through his music there just has to be more of it.

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