A performance that absolutely deserved the Oscar in a film that earned it - Gene Hackman in The French Connection (1971)

The 43rd annual Academy Awards, for the film year 1971.  The nominations were announced on February 22, 1972 and the awards were held on April 10, 1972.

Best Picture:  The French Connection

  • A Clockwork Orange
  • The Last Picture Show
  • Fiddler on the Roof
  • Nicholas and Alexandra

Most Surprising Omission:  Sunday Bloody Sunday

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  McCabe and Mrs. Miller

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

Rank note:  If the Academy had nominated Sunday Bloody Sunday (which seemed headed for a nomination) rather than Nicholas and Alexandra, the year would rank #8

The Race: 1970 Best Director nominee Robert Altman was back with two films – the strange Brewster McCloud and the film that critics couldn’t stop talking about – McCabe and Mrs. Miller.  His fellow nominee, Ken Russell, was also back with two films – The Music Lovers, which got strong praise, especially for Glenda Jackson, the star of Russell’s Women in Love, and The Devils – a film that Jackson backed off from doing, tired of taking her clothes off for Russell.  While Vanessa Redgrave took the role in The Devils, it was trashed by the critics and Jackson took Redgrave’s role in Sunday Bloody Sunday, which opened to fantastic reviews in the fall and reaped huge awards from the BAFTAs.  But none of these films would end up mattering too much – it seemed that everything was waiting for the fall to come out.

Suddenly, two directors took the world by storm.  William Friedkin had a small reputation while Peter Bogdanovich was mostly unknown, but after The French Connection and The Last Picture Show came out, no one could stop talking about either one.  The big budget release of Fiddler on the Roof and a new film from Stanley Kubrick – who had been Oscar nominated for both his previous two films – A Clockwork Orange, didn’t stop the talk for Friedkin and Bogdanovich.  Even when the New York Film Critics gave their top award to Clockwork and Best Director to Kubrick it didn’t slow the tide.  The National Society of Film Critics continued their foreign trend by going with Claire’s Knee for Best Picture, while the National Board of Review went dark with the Roman Polanski helmed Macbeth, though it found room for both Connection and Picture in its top 10 and both films were winning acting awards.

The Golden Globes confirmed The French Connection, The Last Picture Show, A Clockwork Orange and Fiddler on the Roof as the major Oscar contenders, with Best Picture and Director nominations for all of them.  The fifth slot was still open with Summer of ’42 coming on strong with the same Globe noms.  When Connection took home both awards and then added the Directors Guild award as well, it looked the winner was known.  But Fiddler had failed to join the other films in the DGA race, being replaced by Sunday Bloody Sunday.  All six of the major contenders were in the WGA nominations, with Sunday and Connection both taking home awards.

The Results: Sunday Bloody Sunday had nominations for Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay, but no picture nomination – only the fourth time in Oscar history it had happened (after My Man Godfrey, The African Queen and Hud).  Summer of ’42 had earned 4 Oscar nominations, but aside from Screenplay, they were all for technical awards.  Knocking both of them out was Nicholas and Alexandra, which only had a Best Supporting Actor nomination from the Golden Globes going for it headed into the nominations, but had been directed by the previous Oscar winner, Franklin J. Schaffner and had a big marketing campaign, opening just before Christmas.  But it had failed to get either a Director or Screenplay nomination and was only it the race for show.  The French Connection, The Last Picture Show and Fiddler on the Roof had all tied with 8 nominations and A Clockwork Orange had managed 4, but all had Picture and Director and only Fiddler was missing a Screenplay nom.  But with the major wins in its corner, the race was pretty much over already and Connection ended up walking away with 5 Oscars, including Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay and Actor.

Not my choice for Best Picture, but I'm not really complaining.

The French Connection

  • Director:  William Friedkin
  • Writer:  Ernest Tidyman  (from the book by Robin Moore)
  • Producer:  Philip D’Antoni
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium, Actor (Hackman), Supporting Actor (Scheider), Editing, Cinematography, Sound
  • Oscar Points:  465
  • Length:  104 min
  • Genre:  Action  (Cop)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $41.15 mil  (#4  –  1971)
  • Release Date:  9 October 1971
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #67  (nominees)  /  #23  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Hackman), Supporting Actor (Scheider), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  390

The Film:  What do the following films have in common:  The Best Years of Our Lives, All About Eve, The French Connection, The Godfather Part II, Annie Hall, Terms of Endearment, Platoon, Dances with Wolves and The English Patient all have in common?  Well, they all won Best Picture, of course.  And none of them were my own personal choice for Best Picture (Children of Paradise, Sunset Boulevard, A Clockwork Orange, Chinatown, Star Wars, Fanny and Alexander, Hannah and Her Sisters, GoodFellas and Lone Star were).  But what they really have in common is that I can’t really complain that much that any of them won.  They all reached a certain level of quality above where I draw the line for Best Picture winner.  Even if they weren’t the best film of the year, they were at a good enough level that winning the Oscar is justifiable.

Is all you know about The French Connection the chase scene?  Even if it is, then you can easily understand why it won the Oscars for Best Director and Best Editing.  That scene, one of the best and most believable chases ever put on screen, works perfectly from the first second to the last.  But that chase is only part of the larger whole.  First, it has an amazing intense performance by Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle, the cop determined to get to the bottom of drugs coming into New York (what does Hackman have in common with Robert DeNiro, Daniel Day-Lewis, Vivien Leigh, Kevin Spacey and Meryl Streep? – of the 38 people who have won multiple acting Oscars, I agree with their Oscars).  There is also the performance by Roy Scheider as his partner, a strong supporting performance that was noticed by the Academy but that many reviews tend to forget about (Scheider was one of the great overlooked actors of the 70’s – look at him here, or in Jaws, or in Marathon Man, or in All That Jazz and you will see how wonderful he was during that decade).

There are numerous great scenes other than the case.  The chase actually begins with the magnificent scene with the sniper on the rooftop, and how quickly that develops into menace.  There is the scene where Fernando Rey (as the lead drug dealer) plays a game with Hackman on the subway, eventually coming out ahead (although that comes back to haunt him in that perfect scene in the picture above).  There is the scene where they spend the night taking the car apart before they ever think to look at the manifest.

1971 is kind of sad, when you look at the directors who were nominated.  Stanley Kubrick continued to make masterpieces, but only made four more films after this year.  William Friedkin and Peter Bogdanovich both looked like huge rising stars and if their careers had ended in the mid-70’s, they might still be revered rather than reviled for the decades of crap they both made afterwards.  Norman Jewison was at the height of his career and would only go downwards.  And Franklin J. Schaffner had peaked the year before and the nomination of his film is just absurd.

But there was a time when William Freidkin looked like the next big thing.  He won the Oscar here and there is the scene from Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (though, it should be taken with a grain of salt like anything Biskind writers) of Friedkin being driven down the streets of Hollywood, shouting out the box office grosses from The Exorcist.  His career didn’t work out the way he wanted it to.  But looking at this, the naturalistic feel, the pure adrenaline excitement, the intensity, with a bit of humor and look at The Exorcist and you can see what might have been and why he felt so good in that car.

Yes, I love this film. Yes, I'm sick. Get over it.

A Clockwork Orange

  • Director:  Stanley Kubrick
  • Writer:  Stanley Kubrick  (from the novel by Anthony Burgess)
  • Producer:  Stanley Kubrick
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Malcolm McDowell
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium, Editing
  • Oscar Points:  160
  • Length:  136 min
  • Genre:  Horror  (Urban)
  • MPAA Rating:  X
  • Box Office Gross:  $26.58 mil
  • Release Date:  19 December 1971
  • Ebert Rating:  **
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #22  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (McDowell), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  535

The Film:  Roger Ebert dismissed it as a sick fascist viewpoint of an Orwellian world.  But it is so much more than that.  It is counter-productive to dismiss the film with a simple criticism like that.  There are a lot of films that are filled with sex and violence.  Most of those films are badly made.  They are made simply to exploit people’s love of sex and violence.  (It is a curious state of this country that a love of violence has always seemed to be more acceptable than a love of sex.  Violence has always been in the forefront of American culture but Americans have always been taught to be ashamed of sex.  And films filled with violence can easily earn an R, but put too much sex in a film and it’s headed for a harsher rating.  Personally, I would take sex over violence any day.)  But this film is extremely well made.  It is perfectly edited, phenomenally shot, has excellent use of music, is very well written and is filled with amazing sets.

Of course, just because something is well made does not necessarily excuse it if it is despicable.  But I don’t find this film despicable like some do.  I find it fascinating, I find it riveting, I find it damn funny and I find that it has something of quality and depth to say about the actions that are in it.  It is not just an excuse for moral degradation.  It offers up reasons behind the moral degradation, ideas of what that will lead to, and what society tries to do about it.  There are no heroes in this film.  Alex might be the centerpiece of the film and he might have been the hero of the book, especially as he is seen to grow in the course of the book, but there is nothing like that in the film.  Alex is simply our guide.  We see his wonderful use of language (“Come and get one in the yarbles, if you have any yarbles, you eunuch jelly thou” – oh, and if you really want to drive your spell-check nuts, do long extended quotes from the film – you’ll find the red lines popping up all over the place).  We see his grasp of culture (the way he attacks Dim over mocking the opera singer).  We see his lust for sex and violence.  But we also his home life and understand how he wants to rebel against these people in any way that he can.

People don’t rebel against this film because it has sex and violence.  They hate it because it is intelligent about the sex and violence and it wants use to realize that we can not deal with these issues with devout seriousness.  That’s why we get  the fast motion Beethoven sex scene with the two young girls.  That’s why we get Alex doing “Singin’ in the Rain” while kicking a man in the stomach.  Because these highs and lows exist in the same world, because in a very real sense, art comes from these self-same passions.  And because it provides such a juxtaposition that we can’t help but love.  Or cry.  But this film brings out such passions in us all the same way it shows us all of Alex’s passions.  Yes, he is truly a despicable boy, the kind of person who does deserve to be spit upon.  But then yes, he does try to do something about his life.  He does make a choice to be part of the project.  Whether you believe in such a project or don’t, whether you despise those who would change him or those who would simply see fit to beat him for who he has been, again, the film has made you feel.

Perhaps you can be cured as well.

The Last Picture Show - the second BBS film to earn a Best Picture nomination

The Last Picture Show

  • Director:  Peter Bogdanovich
  • Writer:  Peter Bogdanovich  /  Larry McMurtry  (from the novel by McMurtry)
  • Producer:  Stephen J. Friedman
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepard, Ellen Burstyn, Cloris Leachman, Ben Johnson, Randy Quaid, Eileen Brennan
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium, Supporting Actor (Johnson), Supporting Actor (Bridges), Supporting Actress (Leachman), Supporting Actress (Burstyn), Cinematography
  • Oscar Points:  340
  • Length:  118 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $20.50 mil
  • Release Date:  9 November 1971
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #70  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Johnson), Supporting Actor (Bridges), Supporting Actress (Burstyn), Supporting Actress (Leachman), Supporting Actress (Brennan), Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction
  • Nighthawk Points:  415

The Film:  I really didn’t remember much about The Last Picture Show when I went back to watch it.  I had always considered it a **** film, a great film, without question one of the best of 1971, a film that had definitely deserved all of its nominations and both of its Oscars, even if I flipped the winner for Supporting Actress with one of the other nominees.  But there wasn’t much else I could think of.  I knew it was very well acted, I remembered the ending quite clearly, especially the way Cloris Leachman reacts when Bottoms walks through her door.  I also remembered the pool party and the fumbling attempts of Jeff Bridges when trying to have sex.  But that was it.  I have a better memory for the novel, even though I read it a decade ago and no longer own it (I have read several McMurtry novels – The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, Lonesome Dove – and have never really taken to him — the films are better than the source material).  What I remember most about the novel is the sheep copulation scene, which I was rather stunned by (and if Ben Johnson didn’t want to take his role because of the language, imagine if that scene had been in the film).

So, going back to it, I expected a well-made, very well-acted film by a director who was once scene as a shining talent and has had to spend the rest of his career failing to live up to that expectation.  What I found was an American classic.  How good is The Last Picture Show?  I rank it as the third best nominee of the year.  Not exactly the most glowing recommendation.  On the other hand, it is the highest ranked third best nominee in the history of the Oscars, just edging out The Philadelphia Story, The Music Man, Lost in Translation, A Room with a View and There Will Be Blood.  It might seem odd to watch the film and look at Sonny and Duane and wonder where the hell are their families?  But their families don’t belong in the film any more than the actual games of football that we hear so much about (“Look, they can catch,” one of the older men in town says, watching the boys goofing around.  “Too bad they can’t learn to tackle,” says the other one).  This film is about the introduction of adulthood and sex into their lives and their parents don’t belong in the film and neither does the high school life that they are leaving behind.

It’s a well known story by now that Ben Johnson didn’t want to do to the film and that John Ford, whom Bogdanovich worshiped, talked Johnson into doing it and then he won the Oscar.  He deserved that Oscar for his gruff portrayal of Sam the Lion.  Cloris Leachman also gives a performance well-worthy of an Oscar as the mostly abandoned wife of the football coach who turns to the boy who comes around for some sex and tenderness and she even gives him what he needs after blowing up at him in the final scene, a scene perfect in its explosion of anger and truth; it’s also the scene that probably ended up with Leachman winning the Oscar rather than Ellen Burstyn, who is so perfect as the over-sexed mother of the over-sexed Jacey.  If there is any problem with these performances, and the additional one by Eileen Brennan as the local waitress, it is that people forget how good all the younger actors are.  Jeff Bridges, at least, earned some notice, and the first of his Oscar nominations as Duane, but Timothy Bottoms, whose career would not rise like many of the other stars is solid, Cybill Sheppard gives what is easily the best performance of her career and Randy Quaid is perfectly cast.  The film works as an ensemble because it is written as such.  I suppose that Bottoms is the lead, if there is actually a lead.  But really, the film works because of the way that all of the actors interact with each other.  They deserve that final roll in the credits where we see who played everybody.

My wife has a new Archives song - "Accession", sung to the tune of "Tradition"

Fiddler on the Roof

  • Director:  Norman Jewison
  • Writer:  Joseph Stein  (from his musical based on the story “Tevye’s Daughters” by Sholom Aleichem)
  • Producer:  Norman Jewison
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Topol, Norma Crane, Leonard Frey
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Actor (Topol), Supporting Actor (Frey), Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction, Scoring: Adaptation and Original Song Score
  • Oscar Points:  290
  • Length:  181 min
  • Genre:  Musical
  • MPAA Rating:  G
  • Box Office Gross:  $80.50 mil  (#2  –  1971)
  • Release Date:  3 November 1971
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #40  (year)  /  #369  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  From the opening moments of the film, it is obvious why Fiddler on the Roof had become such a beloved musical on stage.  It opens with “Tradition”, one of the show’s best numbers, a wonderful song that establishes everything about the film – it gives us the setting, the main character, his personality and the reason for the story.  It also, however, shows many of the reasons why it does not make for a great film.  It is certainly a good film and the performance by Topol at the heart of the film is very good, lively (though not so good to make us forget that it really should have been Zero Mostel’s role in the film, as it had been for years on stage).  But the song goes on forever.  By the time it ends, we are ten minutes into the film.  It does all of the bad things that directors do with musicals when they are brought from the stage to the screen.  It takes far too long.  It spends extended time either just re-iterating the chorus or playing the music without words.  It digresses from the story in order to show, “hey, it’s a movie and with editing, we can make things last forever.”

Fiddler on the Roof has a number of good songs – “Tradition”, “To Life”, “If I Were a Rich Man”.  But they are all performed by Tevye and he is the focus of the play.  Whenever it moves away from him, and too often the film is allowed to move away from him, everything drags to a crawl.  It is not Topol’s fault that he was cast in the role.  He had been playing it in London, he was very good in it and he provides constant life to the film.  But there’s just not enough of him to go around in the film.  In my Year in Film, I gave Leonard Frey my award for Best Supporting Actor (Comedy or Musical), but not because he is particularly good.  He is solid and in a year in which there were almost no good supporting male performances in a Comedy or Musical, he wins by default.  He certainly wasn’t good enough to earn his actual Oscar nomination and his one main song “Miracle of Miracles” is easily the most annoying song from the entire musical (sadly, it is also the one I always manage to remember – it sticks in my brain the same way that “Tom’s Diner” does, eating away at the precious cells that I would rather could remember birthdays).

But Frey’s performance isn’t the only Oscar nomination the film didn’t deserve.  It’s nowhere close to being one of the top 5 films of the year, the direction from Jewison makes the film drag, the art direction and sound aren’t really all that great and while the cinematography is quite solid, this is the same year as The French Connection.  Oscar Dearest might not be the most objective book ever written and I have many disagreements with it, but their point about the old cinematographers who refused to budge and make way for the new, younger, great talents in the seventies is absolutely accurate.  In this decade, Fiddler on the Roof won over The French Connection, The Godfather failed to earn a nomination, The Towering Inferno won over Chinatown, Funny Lady was nominated over Jaws and A Star is Born was nominated over All the President’s Men.

There will probably be those who argue with me about this film.  But think about it, really.  It is the film that is beloved to you?  Or just the musical?

Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) - one of the most surprising (and crappy) Best Picture nominees of all-time

Nicholas and Alexandra

  • Director:  Franklin J. Schaffner
  • Writer:  James Goldman  /  Edward Bond  (from the book by Robert K. Massie)
  • Producer:  Sam Spiegel
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Michael Jayston, Janet Suzman, Tom Baker
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Actress (Suzman), Cinematography, Original Dramatic Score, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  205
  • Length:  183 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Historical)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Release Date:  13 December 1971
  • Ebert Rating:  **.5
  • My Rating:  **
  • My Rank:  #78  (year)  /  #468  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  15

The Film:  Two questions pop to mind about the nomination of this film.  The first is, given that it had almost no awards precursors (just a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor – a category in which it did not receive an Oscar nomination), how on earth did it get nominated?  Was it because the director, Franklin J. Schaffner, had just won the Oscar the year before for directing Patton?  Was it the December release, so that it was more on the minds of voters than McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Sunday Bloody Sunday?  Was it the genre – historical drama – one that is loved by the Academy?  And then of course, there is the second question.  Who the hell in the Academy thought this film was good enough to be nominated?

I first watched this film in 9th grade History class.  I, and most of my classmates, found it to be really pretty boring.  Certainly the story of the Russian Revolution and the side character of Rasputin could produce a more interesting film than this.  The one scene that we all remembered later was the rather bizarre scene where the young prince sleighs down into the door.  Twenty two years ago I didn’t know who Brian Cox and Ian Holm were and weren’t interested by their early appearances.  I simply thought that Tom Baker was ridiculously over the top, that Janet Suzman was solid, but not great (her nomination is not an embarrassment like the nomination for the film is, but sitting there on the list alongside Glenda Jackson’s performance in Sunday Bloody Sunday, Jane Fonda’s performance in Klute and Julie Christie’s performance in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, it looks as out of place as the film does being on the same list with The French Connection, A Clockwork Orange and The Last Picture Show) and that Michael Jayston was really pretty dull.

Well, it’s been 22 years and I still find the film to be dull, slow-moving, not particularly well acted and incredibly long.  If they had focused just on the Czar and his family it wouldn’t have been nearly so long and possibly not as dull, but also I wouldn’t have the realization: “Holy crap, I recognize that voice.  Brian Cox is playing Trotsky.”

You could see the film, I suppose, if you are a completist like myself (hopefully you won’t make yourself see it a second time), or you could see it if you have a marked interest in that period of Russian history.  But you would be better off watching another film (Reds is about the revolution and not the Czar, but is so much a better film), but I don’t think it’s even really good for Russian enthusiasts.  Let’s face it – Rasputin is such a fascinating historical character that he deserves his own well-made film.  Certainly something better than this.

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