George C. Scott as General George Patton - an Oscar that caused the Academy quite a bit of grief

The 43d annual Academy Awards for the film year 1970.  The nominations were announced on February 22, 1971 and the awards were held on April 15, 1971.

Best Picture:  Patton

  • M*A*S*H
  • Five Easy Pieces
  • Airport
  • Love Story

Most Surprising Omission:  Women in Love

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  The Twelve Chairs

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #70

The Race: Coming into the seventies, the big deal had become the “anti-establishment” film.  The biggest example of the year, starring one of the big new stars, Elliot Gould, was M*A*S*H, which came out at the end of January.  It immediately became a huge hit, with rave reviews and big box office.  The reviews were matched by Patton, which came out in April and the big office was eclipsed by Airport, which came out in March, but Patton didn’t quite make as much money as M*A*S*H and Airport earned mediocre reviews to go with its box office haul.  The next critical hit was Women in Love, finally making it to the States a year after it had won several BAFTA awards.  Over the summer, it was Five Easy Pieces, with Jack Nicholson in the lead getting phenomenal reviews that was winning over critics while David Lean’s first film since Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter, was earning mixed reviews.  Suddenly at Christmas, Love Story came out to very mixed reviews but phenomenal box office, becoming the biggest hit since The Sound of Music.

The critics groups didn’t care about the box office success of Airport or Love Story.  The New York Film Critics went with Five Easy Pieces, the National Board of Review chose Patton and the National Society of Film Critics chose an American film for the first time, going with M*A*S*H.  All three films were also up for Writers Guild and Directors Guild Awards.  Love Story joined it in both races with Ryan’s Daughter earning the final DGA nom.

The Golden Globes confirmed the four front-runners, nominating Patton, M*A*S*H, Five Easy Pieces and Love Story for Picture and Director.  The final director nomination went to Women in Love, which would win Best English Language Foreign Film (being ineligible for Best Picture).  A dark horse was emerging with I Never Sang For My Father, which had been nominated for Picture at the Globes and had, along with Patton and M*A*S*H, won a WGA award.  Love Story then assured that it would conquer the naysayers by winning Picture, Director and Screenplay at the Globes.

The Results: When the nominations were announced, Patton was the big winner with 10, but also with 10 was Airport.  (How to account for that?  In Oscar Dearest, it is suggested that the studio was innovative.  Apparently it was determined that only 46%  of Academy members would see more than two of the nominated films.  They therefore direct-mailed “Airport propaganda to the stay-at-homes.”).  M*A*S*H and Love Story were in with Picture and Director nominations but Five Easy Pieces lost its Director nomination to Women in Love (the fifth director slot went to Fellini Satyricon).  I Never Sang for My Father and Ryan’s Daughter would make do with a handful of nominations each.

Patton, in spite of not winning at the Globes, seemed to have the award in the bag.  It had won all the guilds and everyone was too busy talking about what would happen when George C. Scott won Best Actor, as he had said he would refuse the award to concentrate on the Best Picture race.  Patton came in and won 7 Oscars, including Scott, who refused to attend.

If you're thinking about bombing a foreign country, don't watch this film. Bad things happen.

Patton

  • Director:  Franklin J. Schaffner
  • Writer:  Francis Ford Coppola  /  Edmund H. North
  • Producer:  Frank McCarthy
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  George C. Scott, Karl Malden
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Story and Screenplay – Based on Factual Material or Material Not Previously Published or Produced, Actor (Scott), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Special Visual Effects
  • Oscar Points:  540
  • Oscar Note:  Patton is the only Best Picture winner to get nominated for Best Visual Effects since it ceased to be a regular award in 1946 and lose; it is the only Best Picture nominee to lose unless it was to another nominee
  • Length:  172 min
  • Genre:  War  (World War II)
  • MPAA Rating:  M
  • Box Office Gross:  $62.50 mil  (#4  –  1970)
  • Release Date:  2 April 1970
  • Ebert Rating:  no original Ebert review – only his Great Movie review
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #211  (nominees)  /  #54  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Scott), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Visual Effects, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  365

The Film:  It’s an impressive production, anchored by an incredibly impressive performance.  Scott was hesitant about doing the speech, but was assured it wouldn’t be the opening of the film (he thought the rest of the film would be a letdown).  But the speech works so well that it almost covers up some of the weaknesses of the film.  It is a great film, but just hanging on to that.  I don’t rank it nearly as high as I did the first time I watched it.  I think to some extent I was blinded by the overarching spectacle of it all and the power of Scott’s performance.  But it is a truly great film, just barely at the edge of four stars.

What does the film do right?  Well, the Scott performance for one thing.  He perfectly embodies the great World War II general.  There were other parts of Patton’s life.  He was 60 when he died in 1945.  But the events of the film are only concerned with the last couple of years of Patton’s life – during the time when he became known for being more than just another soldier.  He was the man who was helping to win the war, by overrunning Africa, by taking Italy, the man widely suspected to be leading the invasion of France.  The war is another thing they do right.  They capture the epic scope of the battles, the sounds, the looks, the feel.  They even do a solid job of portraying the complicated friendship and professional rivalry of Patton and Omar Bradley, played well by Karl Malden.

So what is it that really keeps the film from achieving true greatness?  Well, part of that must go to the script by Coppola and North.  It never really develops anything outside of Patton’s bombast and military brilliance.  It does such a good job of focusing on Patton that you would think there isn’t anything else going on in the war.  That also extends to the direction when it comes to anything not having to do with Patton or Bradley.  The script then loses focus.  True, we get a good rendition of the famous incident where Patton slapped a shell-shocked soldier and the aftermath, but too much of the script deals with broad generalizations.

This review really sounds more negative than I intend.  Part of it, perhaps, is that the film is so long and I never really manage to enjoy it.  There’s the great scene where Patton directs his driver to an ancient Roman battlefield and talks about the life that he lived before, the wars he had already fought.  If only we got a bit more of that.  That Patton seems so much more interesting.

M*A*S*H - the best film of Robert Altman's long treasured career

M*A*S*H

  • Director:  Robert Altman
  • Writer:  Ring Lardner Jr.  (from the novel by Richard Hooker)
  • Producer:  Ingo Preminger
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, Tom Skerritt, Robert Duvall, Sally Kellerman
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium, Supporting Actress (Kellerman), Editing
  • Oscar Points:  230
  • Length:  116 min
  • Genre:  Comedy  (Black)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $81.60 mil  (#3  –  1970)
  • Release Date:  25 January 1970
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #21  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Duvall), Supporting Actress (Kellerman), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Sound Editing, Song (“Suicide is Painless”)
  • Nighthawk Points:  545

The Film:  This may sound strange with A Clockwork Orange coming in the following year, but M*A*S*H might be the most subversive film to ever get nominated for Best Picture.  While Clockwork is filled with sex and violence, the central idea of the film isn’t so crazy (whether or not we can overcome natural impulse).  Whereas, M*A*S*H quite sublimely and succinctly ridicules almost everything about the United States military in the same year that Patton was winning Best Picture and when American kids were dying half a word away.

Think about what this film gives us:  the view that pretty much all higher officers in the military are worthless (Colonel Blake) or idiots (the general), a war that seems to not only be pointless, but also to even lack the importance to be a real part of the story, two officers who decide that gassing a colonel and putting him in a compromising position with a prostitute is a good idea, convincing a nurse that to give a blow job to a suicidal surgeon who believes he is killing himself is the only thing that can bring his life meaning.  The most poignant moment in the film comes when one surgeon realizes he gets to go home and envisions his return to his wife and children while staring at the nurse that he is sleeping with.

So what makes it, not only the best film of the year, not only one of the best of a great decade, but one of the great films of all-time?  Because it manages to make so much of it so god damn funny.  What other war film could have the whole climax of the film revolve around a football game with a trick play?  It’s not like the show, it doesn’t shift towards sentimentality.  It firmly establishes where the line is and it leaps across with glee.

Robert Altman was a mixed bag as a director.  He could make classics (M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Player, Gosford Park), but he could also make complete shit (O.C. and Stiggs, Pret-a-Porter).  Though he was known for veering away from a script, it is clear that his best films are the ones that combined great writing with Altman’s strange sensibilities, most notably here, his tendency to allow for overlapping dialogue.  This was very different and it works so perfectly here, because it makes all the scenes feel so real.  It helps that he had a phenomenal cast, with spot-on performances from everyone, though Robert Duvall and Sally Kellerman are the best of the ensemble.  Altman didn’t want to put in the little title about it being Korea.  He wanted it left open, to make it seem like it could be Vietnam.  It works just as well for either war.  It shows the dirt and blood and what people will do to get themselves through.

Then there is the opening and the ending.  Hawkeye comes roaring into camp in the stolen jeep and then takes off in it.  There is the great moment where Colonel Blake asks Radar “Did Hawkeye steal that jeep?” and Radar replies “No sir, it’s the one he came in.”  There is the great smile on Indus Arthur’s face as she gets the joke.  Then we have the cast.  I have long maintained that every film should let us see the cast along with their names so we can put the faces and names together.  There might not be any film that does it as well as M*A*S*H, with that great breaking of the fourth wall telling us who we have just seen and then it all comes down to that perfect line that seems to sum it all up: “God damned Army.”

When they talk about the kind of film they made in the seventies that they don't make anymore? They're talking about Five Easy Pieces.

Five Easy Pieces

  • Director:  Bob Rafelson
  • Writer:  Carole Eastman  /  Bob Rafelson
  • Producer:  Bob Rafelson  /  Richard Wechsler
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Lois Smith
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Story and Screenplay – Based on Factual Material or Material Not Previously Published or Produced, Actor (Nicholson), Supporting Actress (Black)
  • Oscar Points:  155
  • Length:  98 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $18.09 mil
  • Release Date:  12 September 1970
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #167  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Original Screenplay, Actor (Nicholson), Supporting Actress (Black), Supporting Actress (Smith), Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  285

The Film:  In just over a week, Criterion will put out a new box set: The BBS Productions.  When people talk about the freedom and independence of film-making in the seventies, this is the kind of thing they’re talking about.  While Easy Rider is the most well-known of the films and The Last Picture Show is the best of them, Five Easy Pieces is perhaps the most important.  While Easy Rider may have suddenly catapulted Jack Nicholson into stardom and earned him his first Oscar nomination, this was the film that for all-time established him as one of the great actors in film history, one of the great leading men.  He absolutely inhabits his character here and with a wonderful original script and lacking the polish of a big-budget production, it is one of the defining moments of the American film in the seventies.

Nicholson plays Bobby Dupea, a former piano prodigy who has left that world and his family behind and now works on an oil-rig.  He has retreated from the life that he was raised in, into one that is simple.  He isn’t particularly happy with his girlfriend (played so well by Karen Black), and is even less happy when he discovers that she is pregnant.  But he seems stuck in the life he has chosen until he discovers that his father is dying and decides to go see him.

The film is broken into three parts.  In the first, we get a glimpse into the life that Bobby is currently living and brief snippets of what he could have been (including the wonderful scene where he climbs onto a truck and starts playing the piano in the back.  Then we move onto the road trip, the journey north to visit the father, which includes a strange detour of picking up a couple of stranded woman and of course, the famous diner scene, one of the great moments in all of film history and the basis for a million Jack Nicholson impersonations (including mine).

But then comes the final part of the film, once he has returned home and must deal not only with a father he feels he has been an eternal disappointment to, but also a rather strange family.  That his girlfriend tags along with manners and thoughts that are completely out of sync with those she is interacting with does not help.  And so we move on to a conclusion that seems so fitting.  It matters not whether you think it is the right choice, whether it is callous or smart.  The ending, more than anything else defines this as one of those seventies films that don’t get made anymore.

Note:  While writing the review, I suddenly realized I was writing about a better film than I had it listed as.  I ended up moving it up several slots, which ended up bumping the whole year up a notch.

Run. Run away and never watch it. Trust me.

Airport

  • Director:  George Seaton
  • Writer:  George Seaton  (from the novel by Arthur Hailey)
  • Producer:  Ross Hunter
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Stars:  Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, George Kennedy, Helen Hayes, Van Heflin, Maureen Stapleton
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay – Based on Material From Another Medium, Supporting Actress (Hayes), Supporting Actress (Stapleton), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  310
  • Length:  137 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  G
  • Box Office Gross:  $100.48  (#2  –  1970; #6 all-time upon original release)
  • Release Date:  5 March 1970
  • Ebert Rating:  **
  • My Rating:  **
  • My Rank:  #85  (year)  /  #471  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  By the time I finally got around to seeing Airport, sometime in college or so, so much of it seemed familiar to me.  After all, I had been watching Airplane over and over for some 15 years by then.  Granted, Airplane‘s major target is the sequel Airport 1975 (a film, by the way, released in 1974 — and it’s even more awful than Airport, so don’t bother ever watching it — I watched it just after watching Airport again because they came on the same DVD from Netflix) but much of the notion came from the original film (although, oddly, there are more scenes in the second Airplane that directly parody the first Airport — most notably the Chuck Connors scene describing what could happen if a bomb blew and the whole bomb subplot in the first place).  So it was always going to be hard to take this film seriously.  But it had been nominated for 10 Academy Awards, so I thought there must be something there worth watching.  Well, given that it’s in the bottom 5 of all-time for Best Picture nominees and it isn’t even the worst film in its respective year says something about where the Academy heads were at (not a shocker that those two films were also the two biggest films of the year and two of the biggest films of all-time at that point).

So, even laying aside how difficult it is to take Airport seriously in the wake of Airplane, let’s look at the film itself.  Or, let’s look at all the problems with the film.  1 – It has an utterly implausible screenplay.  I know that things have changed a lot over the years in airports, but I couldn’t believe anything that happened for even a minute.  2 –  It wants us to believe that Dean Martin is a pilot.  Nuff said there.  3 – It has what is easily the worst performance of Burt Lancaster’s career (Lancaster himself thought the film was terrible).  4 – It earned Helen Hayes an Oscar over much much much better performances from Sally Kellerman in M*A*S*H and Karen Black in Five Easy Pieces.  5 – It takes the final score of Alfred Newman’s distinguished career, quite a good score actually, and uses it well for about 30 seconds and then uses it quite badly for the rest of the film.  6 – It has the same stupid shot of a plane flying at night (if there is anything positive to be said about Airport 1975 it is that there is some quite good aerial photography of the plane flying); was the budget for effects something like 30 bucks?  7 – It ended up with 10 nominations or one more than Five Easy Pieces and M*A*S*H combined.  8 – It wants us to believe that in the middle of a snowstorm that Lancaster’s wife would come to the airport, while he’s desperately trying to hold everything together and demand a divorce and that Lancaster’s boss would come into the middle of a meeting, demand the airport shut down and capitulate five seconds later.  9 – It spawned three other films, one of which somehow ended up with an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design, one of the most bizarre and terrible Oscar nominations in history.  10 – It was nominated for Costume Design.  Really?  The costumes for the pilots and the stewardesses were better than the World War II uniforms in Patton?  Or all the costumes in Women in Love?

That’s it.  I can’t write any more about this stupid film.  It’s awful, it never should have been nominated for anything (even Hayes and Stapleton aren’t all that great).  It is the worst film to ever reach double digits in Oscar nominations.  Don’t watch it.  It’s a waste of your time.

watching this film means always having to regret it

Love Story

  • Director:  Arthur Hiller
  • Writer:  Erich Segal
  • Producer:  Howard G. Minsky
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Ryan O’Neal, Ali MacGraw, John Marley, Ray Milland
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Story and Screenplay – Based on Factual Material or Material Not Previously Published or Produced, Actor (O’Neal), Actress (MacGraw), Supporting Actor (Marley), Original Score
  • Oscar Points:  295
  • Length:  99 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Romance)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $106.39 mil  (#1  –  1970; #3 all-time upon original release)
  • Release Date:  16 December 1970
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  **
  • My Rank:  #86  (year)  /  #472  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Score
  • Nighthawk Points:  25

The Film:  In a classic “Doonesbury” strip from 1986, when Duke died, Curtis gives the eulogistic reading: “What can you say about a 25 year-old girl who died?  That she was beautiful and brilliant.  That she loved Mozart and Bach.  And the Beatles.  And me.”  Zonker looks at him and says “Curtis, what the hell is that?”  “It’s from Love Story.” Curtis replies.  “It was the closest I could find in the library.”

Zonker is no more flabbergasted at hearing it than I am watching the first few minutes of Love Story, remembering that this film has some of the worst lines ever written.  “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  Are you fucking kidding me?  What a completely idiotic line.  And the scene where she says it, the way she delivers it is just so damned awful.  How could she have possibly earned an Oscar nomination for this?

I’ll say this.  Back in the mid-90’s, when I was tracking down Best Picture nominees, Blockbuster Video used to have a guarantee – if you didn’t like the film you could get a free rental.  I could have done it lots of times, but I only actually did it twice.  The first time was for Z and the only reason I did it was because they had it listed as subtitled, when it fact, it was dubbed.  I was completely livid to find a dubbed film labeled as subtitled.  The only other one I ever asked for the free rental on was Love Story, because it was just so awful that I felt I had earned the free rental.

I would feel the same way for having rewatched it, except I did it on Watch Instantly and didn’t have to waste even a Netflix cue, let alone pay any actual money for the rental.  I mean look at these two.  Do either Ryan O’Neal or Ali MacGraw, for one second, seem like they could be Harvard students?  Do their long walks along the Cambridge streets actually pass for a meaningful romance?  Is there anything more trite than the rich boy and the poor girl, with the rich parent rejecting the marriage.  Not all of the seven Oscar nominations are completely appalling.  Just the ones for Picture, Director, Screenplay and Actress.  O’Neal is not bad and is even good at times, though nowhere near earning an Oscar nomination, Marley is fairly solid (as is Milland, actually), and the score actually is quite good.  It’s just too bad it was wasted on such a cliche, trite piece of crap.

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