Marshall McLuhan flubs his line but gets immortality in his appearance in Annie Hall

The 50th annual Academy Awards, for the film year 1977.  The nominations were announced on February 21, 1978 and the awards were held on April 3, 1978

Best Picture:  Annie Hall

  • Star Wars
  • The Goodbye Girl
  • Julia
  • The Turning Point

Most Surprising Omission:  Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Best Eligible Film That Wasn’t Nominated:  Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #37

The Race: Woody Allen had a new film coming out.  At first titled Anhedonia, it was called Annie Hall by the time it hit theaters in April.  It earned the best box office of his career and the best reviews and suddenly Woody was actually talked about as a serious awards contender, instead of just settling for a WGA nomination.  But Woody’s box office success was nothing compared to George Lucas.  Lucas had already had some Academy success, with nominations for Director and Screenplay for American Graffiti.  His new film, Star Wars, was in the style of the old Flash Gordon serials, and from the second it opened it started breaking every box office record.  It wasn’t just the crowds – the critics loved it too and before long it became clear that Jaws would no longer be the biggest movie in history.

But Steven Spielberg, the young director of Jaws, was also in the Science Fiction mix with his new film: Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Though it didn’t earn quite the reviews and certainly not the box office of Star Wars, it also was a hit with both critics and audiences.  In a season with more high-brow (but lower grossing) fare like Fred Zinneman’s Julia or Herbert Ross’ two films: the ballet drama The Turning Point and the Neil Simon comedy The Goodbye Girl and with high grossing (but not as critically revered) films like Saturday Night Fever and Oh God!, Close Encounters seemed the perfect, more serious counterpart to Star Wars.

The first awards of the year went to The Turning Point, which won Best Picture, Actress and Supporting Actor from the National Board of Review.  But Annie Hall was in second place (and won Screenplay) and would soon win Picture, Actress and Screenplay from the National Society of Film Critics and the same three awards plus Best Director from the New York Film Critics.  The LA Film Critics acknowledged Annie Hall‘s writing but went with the crowd pleasing Star Wars as their Best Picture.

The Golden Globes were up next and their five nominees for Best Director seemed like a good predictor – Annie Hall, Julia, The Turning Point, Star Wars and Close Encounters.  All of them except Annie Hall were in the Picture (Drama) race and only Star Wars wasn’t in the Screenplay race (replaced by The Goodbye Girl).  But then The Goodbye Girl won Best Picture (Comedy) and Screenplay and The Turning Point won Picture (Drama) and Director and suddenly there were questions about what film wasn’t going to be in the race and what might win on the big night.  The Writers Guild certainly didn’t help with the question with Annie Hall, Julia and The Turning Point all winning, with nominations for Star Wars, The Goodbye Girl and Close Encounters.  The Directors Guild matched the Golden Globes for Director and Woody Allen took home the prize, so it looked like The Goodbye Girl might be out of the race and Annie Hall might win it all.

The Results: The Academy wasn’t going to make it easy for Allen.  First, it was a romantic comedy.  Second, it was going to have to be the winner with the fewest nominations since 1952, as it only ended up with 5.  And the five were all major ones (Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Actress), so if it was going to win it would be the first to win without any technical nominations since 1934.  It was also tied for the fewest nominations, something no film had managed to win with in 10 years – in fact it had been 8 years since a film won that hadn’t had the most or been tied for the most nominations.

No matter what, Allen wouldn’t have to compete with Close Encounters.  This time Spielberg was in the race but his film was not – having been ousted for The Goodbye Girl.  Both of Ross’ films were in, but Academy rules kept him from being nominated twice and Spielberg had captured the fifth Best Director slot.  The Turning Point was a major contender with 11 nominations – tied with Julia for the most – and both were up for Picture, Director, Screenplay and 4 acting awards.  Star Wars was the final nominee and though Lucas was again up for Director and Screenplay, it seemed like being the first Science Fiction film to ever earn a nomination was going to be prize enough (well, that and the box office).

On Oscar night itself, though Allen wasn’t there to receive his accolades, his film did indeed overcome all the precedents working against it and won everything except Best Actor.  And The Turning Point also made history – as the film with the most nominations all-time to go home empty handed.  Star Wars wouldn’t just have to do make do with its box office – it took home 7 Oscars (one for special achievement), though the only Lucas Oscar would be for his wife Marcia’s editing.

the funniest of all the Woody Allen films

Annie Hall

  • Director:  Woody Allen
  • Writer:  Woody Allen  /  Marshall Brickman
  • Producer:  Charles H. Joffe
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actor (Allen), Actress (Keaton)
  • Oscar Points:  375
  • Length:  93 min
  • Genre:  Comedy (Romantic)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $38.25 mil
  • Release Date:   20 April 1977
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #22  (nominees)  /  #7  (winners)  /  #30  (all-time)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Allen), Actress (Keaton), Supporting Actor (Roberts), Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction
  • Nighthawk Points:  380

The Film:  Woody Allen has been nominated for Best Director six times and has earned 14 Oscar writing nominations but only two of his films have been nominated for Best Picture.  This says two things.  First, it says that the directors and writers respect Allen and his art in a way that the larger body of the Academy clearly does not (only Fellini has as many Director nominations without Picture nominations).  Second, it says that those two films – Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters find a kind of wider appeal than any of his other films (this notion is also supported by the box office – Annie Hall made $38 million and Hannah made $40 million – the only other Allen film to gross more than $25 million is Manhattan which made $39 million).  So, what is it about these two films?  I’ll discuss Hannah in greater detail when we get to 1986 but mostly it comes down to the depth of the story and the characters – he creates the deepest, most realized characters of his career, characters he clearly cares about and he gives them a great story to go along with it and also keeps it funny.  With Annie Hall, it is all about the romance, the honesty of it and the honesty of the characters.

Look at Alvy.  He’s often seen as Woody himself, partially because he’s also a comedian and he makes use of a lot of Woody’s act and his life somewhat parallels Allen’s, but he’s not really him.  Allen is far too honest with us about what kind of guy Alvy is.  He’s not above showing his hypocrisy (he has the long dialogue about the people treating him like a Jew then immediately has the scene where he complains about the two Italians who want his autograph), his dishonesty (he blatantly lies to Annie about who he has just been with) and his failures as a romantic partner (both in his marriages, but also in the way he keeps Annie at arm’s length while complaining that she’s not closer to him).  But we can also understand exactly how Annie and Alvy come to fall in love in the first place.  Their romance is genuine – it doesn’t involve a meet cute or anything odd – they have mutual friends and end up playing tennis together.  She finds him interesting and what follows after her initial “la-de-da” is an honest and touching collection of scenes about two people who are genuinely interested in each other and are trying to overcome their own neurosis to find each other.  That it is also incredibly funny (her psychotic driving, the great subtitles when they are on the roof) only adds to the scene.  But even better, the film doesn’t just start with that.  It moves towards it from both directions.  Much like the obviously inspired (500) Days of Summer, it understands that romances seem to exist in and out of time and don’t necessarily follow the linear path.

Part of that works so well because this film is unappreciated in terms of its quality.  I’m not talking about the direction or the writing or the acting (and while Allen was excellent and earned his Oscar nomination and Keaton was beyond brilliant – the best work of a truly great career and absolutely deserving of her Oscar, not enough credit goes to the great performance from Tony Roberts), but about the construction of the film – the sly, deft camera work from Gordon Willis that Allen himself says taught him how to be a director, the magnificent editing that makes a 90 minute classic out of what was once a 140 minute murder mystery or the art direction.

The fact that this is probably the funniest film that Allen has ever made doesn’t hurt either.  Just look at some of the great lines in the film: “Don’t knock masturbation.  It’s sex with someone I love.”  “For God’s sake, Alvy, even Freud speaks of a latency period.”  “Everything our parents said was good for us is – the sun, milk, red meat, college.”  “Sex with you is really a Kafka-esque experience.”  But there’s also the great moments that are so funny and perceptive at the same time – the way in which he trashes L.A. (“I don’t want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is you can make a right turn on a red light.”) but also rather deftly hits New York as well (“Don’t you see the rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.”).  He can nail down Alison with one phrase (“you’re like New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps and the, the father with the Ben Shahn drawings”) and then when she hits him back (“No, that was wonderful.  I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.”) he even has the perfect comeback: “I’m a bigot – but for the left.”

But what it really comes down to is his insights into relationships.  The opening and closing monologues seem to be the perfect book-ends not only to the film, but also to his entire career post-Annie Hall.  He understands the problem he has with the women that he chooses, but also understands that he is choosing them.  “Such small portions” indeed.  And then those final ending lines.  What more can be said?  You might not like Woody Allen much, or his acting style, or even his New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual style of humor.  But we all do go through these relationships and unless we get lucky (like I have), we keep going through them again and again no matter how irrational, crazy or absurd they might seem.  Because, let’s face it.  Most of us need the eggs.

one of several Star Wars posters that I own a copy of

Star Wars

  • Director:  George Lucas
  • Writer:  George Lucas
  • Producer:  Gary Kurtz
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness, Peter Cushing
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Supporting Actor (Guinness), Editing, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Costume Design, Sound Effects (Special Achievement Award)
  • Oscar Points:
  • Length:  121 min
  • Genre:  Science Fiction
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $307.26 mil  (#1  –  1977; #1 all-time upon initial release)
  • Release Date:   25 May 1977
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #21  (nominees)  /  #29  (all-time)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Guinness), Supporting Actor (Cushing), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  680

The Film:  How can you possibly sit forward on the edge of your seat while watching a film you’ve seen over 500 times?  I was thinking about that while watching Luke fly through the trench, with Darth Vader getting ever closer and closer.  Wedge has left and Biggs is dead.  I knew Han would come in and save the day of course, that magnificent shot of the Millenium Falcon coming straight out of the sun, but with the music, the effects, the tension, I was on the edge of my seat.  And I was loving every minute of it.

Because that’s what this film does to you.  This is what separates this film from most of the big budget blockbusters that have come in the decades since.  Because Lucas was never about just making a film with big explosions that took technology to a new level.  Lucas was always about the story.  This what has always separated Lucas from people like James Cameron.  What comes first is the story.  This isn’t just a big action film in space.  It is a Kurosawa film, complete with the story being told through the less important characters, thrown into the blender of Joseph Campbell.  It is the power of myth writ large on the big screen.  It wasn’t the big explosions.  It was the creation of an entire universe.

Also have a copy of this one.

This is my first love, the film that I saw at first on the big screen, then again and again.  I got a stuffed Chewbacca for Christmas (which my son now sleeps with), have the original 105 action figures and was hooked for life.  There was so much back story here that we could be intrigued about – what were the Clone Wars and what part did General Kenobi play?  How did he end up on this desert planet in the middle of nowhere?  And what happened between him and Darth Vader that lead to that fearsome mask?  And what happened to the rest of the Jedi?  And there were entire planets to look at – just look at the adventures you could think of in the desert sands of Tatooine.  This is a fully constructed world – with moisture farmers, Tusken Raiders, Jawas and god knows what else.

If there was a single kid that I knew who didn’t want to be Han Solo, it was because they wanted to be Luke.  Or they wanted to somehow combine the two – to have the cocky attitude and be the hero who comes back because there is something more powerful than money, but also have the power to use the force and have a lightsaber.  Because there was nothing cooler than a lightsaber.  Hell, there is still nothing cooler than a lightsaber.  It is one of the great technological marvels of the film that only fit in so perfectly with the story rather than merely being an excuse for the film’s technical staff to show off.  It looked great, had the most perfect sound effects – those were Oscars well deserved.  And of course there were the other Oscars as well – for Art Direction and Costume Design because they didn’t just merely create new worlds, entire races and armies, but made them looked lived in.  They beat the hell out of the sets and props so that this looked like an actual galaxy – not a movie set.

And there is the Editing.  It must gall George Lucas that his ex-wife Marcia has an Oscar and he doesn’t, but she did earn it quite well.  Part of what is so great about the film is not only that it never drags, not for a single second, but also how great the film looks traveling from shot to shot.  There is such a variety of wipes and dissolves that it’s not just one quick jump from one visual effects shot to another.  The film proceeds down a smooth path.

I wish I had this one

Then for a second look at the screenplay.  Lucas is (rather rightfully) criticized for his writing and there is no question that in Empire when he got better writers involved (Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan) that suddenly the dialogue sprang to life.  But the dialogue in Star Wars works so well for the mythic aspects of the storyline.  They might sound awkward when read on the page, but they work so well in the film.  And “May the Force be with you” has transcended the very film itself – it becomes a line about faith and the working of the universe.  I am not the only person who doesn’t believe in god who spends a lot time actually believing in the Force – in both the light and dark aspects.

Of course part of what makes the dialogue work so well in the context of this film: the acting.  The casting of this film is brilliant – making use of three fairly unknowns and surrounding them with two of the best in the business who epitomize two of the most enjoyable stretches in film-making history: The Ealing Comedies (Alec Guinness) and the Hammer Horror (Peter Cushing).  Guinness’ performance is one of the best in a career that is as good as anyone else in the history of film – from the Ealing Comedies to the Lean epics on through to Star Wars and Little Dorritt.  And then I am reminded of the talk in 1992 when Robin Williams was so perfect as the Genie in Aladdin and whether or not you should get an Oscar nomination for a voice performance – a conversation that should have began with James Earl Jones in 1977.  There is no actor around who could have so perfectly embodied that voice the way that he does (and yes, of course I have a Darth Vader voice changing helmet).

In a sense, it comes down to this.  This is one of the most influential films in the history of cinema.  It completely changed the landscape in terms of its success, both on and off the screen.  But like so many other iconic artistic moments, its imitators have not fully grasped the true reason for its success.  It was never about the flashy effects.  It comes down to the idea that this story really did take place, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Marsha Mason in a Neil Simon film! What a shock!

The Goodbye Girl

  • Director:  Herbert Ross
  • Writer:  Neil Simon
  • Producer:  Ray Stark
  • Studio:  MGM / Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Marsha Mason, Richard Dreyfuss, Quinn Cummings
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actor (Dreyfuss), Actress (Mason), Supporting Actress (Cummings)
  • Oscar Points:  225
  • Length:  111 min
  • Genre:  Comedy  (Romantic)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $83.70 mil  (#5  –  1977)
  • Release Date:   30 November 1977
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #10  (year)  /  #270  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Dreyfuss), Actress (Mason), Supporting Actress (Cummings), Original Screenplay
  • Nighthawk Points:  140

The Film:  There was a stretch in the late 70’s and early 80’s where the best way to end up with an acting nomination at the Oscars was to be in a Neil Simon adaptation.  From 1975 to 1981 there were 10 acting nominees from films written by Simon (originally or adapted), including three nominations for his wife, Marsha Mason, and three winners – George Burns in 1975, Richard Dreyfuss in 1977 and Maggie Smith in 1978.  But of all those films, only The Goodbye Girl made the leap into the Best Picture nominees.

Why is that?  Certainly it’s no better than The Sunshine Boys or California Suite and in some ways may be inferior to both.  Part of might be attributed to the weakness of the year.  1977 was by no means a great year for films and The Goodbye Girl is better than two of the films which earned far more nominations (Julia and The Turning Point).  And part of it may probably be attributed to Richard Dreyfuss.  He had already been in two of the biggest films of all-time (American Graffiti and Jaws), was breaking through with his acting and the film opened at the same time as his other big film of the year, Close Encounters of the Third KindClose Encounters would take the Best Director slot that Goodbye Girl could not (as it was directed by Herbert Ross who also directed The Turning Point and Academy rules would not allow him to be nominated twice).  Close Encounters was a far superior film, but in the same year as Star Wars, which clearly could not be denied it was probably too much to hope for that two films from a genre that has been typically shunned by the Academy would break through to the final 5 in the same year.

So what is it about this film?  Well, it is exceedingly charming.  Dreyfuss is very good (even if he shouldn’t have won the Oscar in the same year when Richard Burton was in Equus), Quinn Cummings is smart and perfect as the daughter that he falls in love with long before he falls for the mother and Marsha Mason is smart and good, even if she is a bit of a chore.  It is funny, has a wonderful scene when Dreyfuss is forced to commit professional suicide in the worst Shakespeare idea until Ethan Hawke gave the “To be or not to be” speech in a Blockbuster video and an even better scene later when Dreyfuss reacts to his reviews.  But it is never a great film.  There is too much of the “meet cute” about the film and the irritation of Mason and the little quirks of Dreyfuss’ character smack a little too much of stage-craft.  It is not a great film, but it is very good and it’s enjoyable to watch once in a while.  And in a year as weak as this, it’s the kind of film that could easily slip through to the top 5.

It's "true" but doesn't feel true. What's the opposite of truthiness?

Julia

  • Director:  Fred Zinneman
  • Writer:  Alvin Sargent  (based on the memoir Pentimento by Lillian Hellman)
  • Producer:  Richard Roth
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robards, Maximillian Schell
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium, Actress (Fonda), Supporting Actor (Robards), Supporting Actor (Schell), Supporting Actress (Redgrave), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  450
  • Length:  117 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (True Story)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Release Date:   2 October 1977
  • Ebert Rating:  **.5
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #20  (year)  /  #343  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Fonda), Supporting Actor (Robards), Supporting Actress (Redgrave)
  • Nighthawk Points:  125

The Film:  How much of this film is true?  That, I suppose, is a question that haunts the background of any purported true story.  On one level, it doesn’t really matter.  If you go to a film looking for a history lesson, you are bound to be disappointed.  A better question is this: How much of this film feels like it is true?  Is the story believable?  Because in so many films it just isn’t and that is the primary problem.

Let’s look at Julia for example.  Here we have a solidly made film from a great director (Fred Zinneman – winner of two Oscars).  It has a magnificent cast – Jane Fonda, tough and smart as Lillian Hellman, Jason Robards, winning a second straight Oscar (something no one had ever done in the supporting category) for his cynical but supportive performance as the great Dashiell Hammett, Vanessa Redgrave – fascinating, mysterious and beautiful as the ethereal Julia and even a small but intriguing performance by Maximillian Schell.  All four of them would be nominated (Schell didn’t quite deserve his, but it wasn’t a bad choice – just that there better choices available) and Robards and Redgrave would both win.  But something doesn’t quite ever feel right about the film.

The fault, it would seem would lie in the script – interesting since the script would win the Oscar (though it was an incredibly weak year – not bad choices for the nominations, but quite simply the weakest year for adapted screenplays since the 30’s).  The film never really feels like it could have happened.  Oh, certainly, we know about Hellman and Hammett and their relationship and how he nurtured her as a writer while also being there as a lover and their scenes are the best in the film.  Perhaps that is the problem.  They are a much more interesting storyline.  Julia is well-played by Redgrave and she deserved her Oscar but the character feels completely undeveloped – as if the writers had an idea of this ethereal character but no concept of how to make the character itself come to life.  The flashback scenes are painfully awkward and the reunion scenes are almost as strange.  It’s almost as if the performances abandoned the script and made themselves come to life in spite of how much the scenes didn’t work.

So, in the end, we have a film that has such wonderful acting and to no avail.  It ended up with a lot of awards and a lot of nominations perhaps because it felt like the kind of film that won awards and earned nominations.  But looking back, it just seems like it’s not all there.

It's not boring because it has ballet. It's boring and it has ballet.

The Turning Point

  • Director:  Herbert Ross
  • Writer:  Arthur Laurents
  • Producer:  Herbert Ross  /  Arthur Laurents
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Shirley MacLaine, Anne Bancroft, Tom Skerritt, Leslie Browne, Mikhail Baryshnikov
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actress (MacLaine), Actress (Bancroft), Supporting Actor (Baryshnikov), Supporting Actress (Browne), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction
  • Oscar Points:  335
  • Oscar Record:  Most Nominations with No Wins (11) – tied in 1985; Most Points with No Wins (335)
  • Length:  119 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $33.60 mil
  • Release Date:   14 November 1977
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #42  (year)  /  #392  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (MacLaine), Actress (Bancroft)
  • Nighthawk Points:  70

The Film:  Was it perhaps the more artistic subject matter (ballet dancers combined with a plot reminiscent of All About Eve), combined with the solid performance from the two stars, Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft, that made people confused?  How else to attribute the awards success of this film?  For while it may have been the biggest shut-out in Oscar history (later to be tied by The Color Purple), it still found itself with 11 nominations and it won both Best Picture – Drama and Best Director at the Golden Globes.

But there’s really not that much here.  Certainly nothing worthy of 11 Oscar nominations.  Yes, there is a very good performance from Shirley MacLaine as the woman who abandoned her career in ballet in order to raise a family (and perhaps to keep hold of the man she loved and to prove that he was straight).  There is also a solid performance from Anne Bancroft as the woman who stuck with it and became a star.  But there were inexplicably Oscar nominations for Mikhail Baryshnikov (passable as a ballet star, but really not much of a stretch from who he really was) and Leslie Browne, playing MacLaine’s older daughter who falls into the wings of Bancroft (one of the weakest performances in the history of the Oscars to ever earn a nomination – how she managed to make the list in place of all the supporting female performances in Equus is completely beyond me).  Herbert Ross was nominated for his direction which isn’t memorable in the slightest (Oscar rules prevented him from being nominated for both his films and he was perhaps nominated here because it was the drama, but it was The Goodbye Girl which had much better direction).  Worst of all, the cliche-ridden script was also nominated.  That is probably the weakest part of the film – that any of the lines or scenes would be remembered after ten minutes, let alone months later boggles my mind.  The only scene worth remembering in the film is the catfight between MacLaine and Bancroft after they both reveal their petty jealousies of the other, but even that scene is much more laughable than it is solid and once you’ve seen it, to see it again only makes it worse.

I remember being bored the first time I watched this film.  I’ve certainly never been much of a fan of ballet.  And there is a lot of ballet in this film (far too much, as they keep showing individual performances, complete with title cards).  But you can do a lot with it, as Aronofsky has proven.  It’s really the film itself that is boring.

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