With 7 Oscars, The Sting becomes the most successful Comedy in Academy history.

The 46th annual Academy Awards, for the film year 1973.  The nominations were announced on February 19, 1974 and the awards were held on April 2, 1974.

Best Picture:  The Sting

  • Cries and Whispers
  • The Exorcist
  • American Graffiti
  • A Touch of Class

Most Surprising Omission:  Serpico

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Mean Streets

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #8

Rank Note:  If they had nominated Serpico instead of A Touch of Class, this year would rank #1.

The Race: The New York Film Critics fired the first salvo in the 1973 Oscar race by giving their Best Picture award to Cries and Whispers – a full year before it would be eligible for the Oscars.  The 1972 Bergman film had been screened for critics and had opened in New York but did not play in Los Angeles before the end of the year, making it eligible for the 1973 Oscars.  Joining it with full critical attention was another 1972 holdover that would be eligible for 1973: Last Tango in Paris.  Bernado Bertolucci’s film had garnered massive publicity, with pictures in Playboy, a X rating and much discussion over whether it was pornography or art.  Other films began joining those first two with strong critical reviews: The Last Detail, The Day of the Jackal, Paper Moon; they all paled in comparison with the big summer film: American Graffiti.  The child of 29 year old director George Lucas, Graffiti earned rave reviews and became the biggest hit so far of the year and broke into the top 10 all-time, with an almost 9000% return on its original budget.  But the final big films of the year were all stacked up in December: Serpico, The Exorcist and The Sting.

The National Board of Review went with The Sting, which was quickly becoming one of the biggest box-office hits of all-time, eclipsed only by The Exorcist, which would soon become the biggest film of all-time, breaking Gone with the Wind‘s box office record.  Serpico and Paper Moon made it into the NBR’s Top 10 and Cries and Whispers won Best Foreign Film and Best Director, but most of the other major films were left out.  The next two critics groups were no help at all.  Both the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics chose Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night for Best Picture and Best Director, but it hadn’t yet played in Los Angeles and wouldn’t be eligible for the Oscars (except for Foreign Film) until the following year.

The Golden Globes moved The Exorcist and Day of the Jackal up the list as the only films with Picture, Director and Screenplay nominations.  The other Picture / Director nominees were Last Tango in Paris, American Graffiti and Paper MoonThe Exorcist swept the big three awards and American Graffiti took home Best Picture – Comedy.  The Directors Guild went another direction, agreeing with The Exorcist, Graffiti and Tango, but going with Serpico (which only had Picture and Actor noms from the Globes) and The Sting (which only had a Screenplay nom).  The Sting won the DGA, moving it to the front-runner position, but couldn’t pull off another victory at the Writers Guild, losing to Save the Tiger.  With Serpico beating The Exorcist, A Touch of Class (which had done well at the Globes with two acting wins and four nominations) beating American Graffiti and Paper Moon winning the final category, none of the confusion was sorted out.  Going into the nominations it looked like The Exorcist was in the lead, The Sting just behind, American Graffiti going strong and a number of films competing for the final two slots, including Cries and Whispers, Day of the Jackal, Last Tango in Paris, Serpico, Paper Moon and A Touch of Class.

The Results: The Sting and The Exorcist tied with 10 nominations each.  American Graffiti was in both the Picture and Director race, but with only 5 overall nominations.  A Touch of Class had managed to take a Picture slot, with its Director slot going to Bertolucci.  But in place of Serpico in both the Picture and Director races was Cries and Whispers.  Amazingly, the final race offered a Horror film, three Comedies and a Foreign Film and, for the first time since 1955, only one of the nominees was nominated for Adapted Screenplay.  It was down to those top two films with The Sting having the edge with the DGA win.  But once the awards began and The Sting started winning award after award (it was head to head against The Exorcist in four technical categories – The Sting took Art Direction and Editing, The Exorcist took Sound and they both lost Cinematography to Cries and Whispers), they split the writing awards and then The Sting won Best Director and it was pretty much all over.  In the end, The Sting took home 7 Oscars to The Exorcist‘s 2 and The Exorcist could take its consolation in beating The Sting by $37 million at the box office.

The Sting was the first film since 1955 to win the Oscar without a Golden Globe nomination.

The Sting

  • Director:  George Roy Hill
  • Writer:  David S. Ward
  • Producer:  Tony Bill  /  Michael Phillips  /  Julia Phillips
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Stars:  Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Robert Shaw, Charles Durning, Harold Gould
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Story and Screenplay – Based on Factual Material or Material Not Previously Published or Produced, Actor (Redford), Editing, Cinematography, Scoring: Original Song Score And/Or Adaptation, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  490
  • Length:  129 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $156.00 mil  (#2  –  1973; #3  –  all-time, upon initial release)
  • Release Date:  25 December 1973
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #6  (year)  /  #141  (nominees)  /  #37  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Screenplay, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  75

The Film:  When I tell my story about being mugged, I always get asked, “what did you do?”  It feels a bit embarrassing to say it, but when I think about it, my answer is the perfect answer.  I ran.  The facts that I was aware of was that I was outnumbered five to one, even if they were much younger than I was.  I was only a block from home and I had my phone on me.  I had nothing to gain by staying.  As it turned out later, one of them had a switchblade, so I also had everything to lose.

Memories of this came back to me part way through The Sting, when I thought, damn, Robert Redford must have been in pretty damn good shape when making this film because he runs a lot.  It seems like Redford spends most of the film almost getting caught, sometimes by the law, sometimes not.  But he reacts instinctively.  He immediately turns and runs.  It keeps him alive.  He knows who he is.  When asked by Paul Newman if he’s up for the world of trouble he’ll cause by putting a big score on Lonnegan, the man who killed his partner, he says that he is and when asked why he has the perfect answer: “Cause I don’t know enough about killin to kill him.”

One of the dangers of reuniting stars with a director, especially when the first go-around was a huge success is that you think of them in those roles.  That line is needed to firmly establish this.  These two are not Butch and Sundance.  They don’t know anything about killing.  They know how to drink.  They know how to run.  And they know how to take a man down, humiliate him and take his money.  And that’s just what they’re going to do.  Hill does a perfect job of establishing this early on, and from then on, it becomes all about the con.

In recent years, especially in the Ocean films, elaborate cons have become the whole point of the plot.  They may get ridiculous, but they don’t get so complicated that we can’t understand it.  While this has been going on in films for decades, really The Sting seems to have jump-started this.  It was enormously successful when it was first released (when adjusted for inflation it still sits in the top 20) and was just flat out fun.  It starred two of the biggest stars in the world and their ease with each other is evident in every shot.  It is well-made, with wonderful period sets and costumes and wonderfully scored.  It made a huge hit of Scott Joplin’s 71 year old tune “The Entertainer” (even if the music is 30 years older than the setting of the story).  The script is very well-written and perfectly structured to always lets us know what stage of the game we’re in.

Is it the best film of 1973?  Not even close.  It is a great film and it is great entertainment – one of the most enjoyable of all the Best Picture winners.  But even if we were to ignore the fact that Cries and Whispers and The Exorcist are better films (both nominated) as is Mean Streets (not nominated), even if we were to think of it in pure entertainment value (and there is a measure of that in the Oscars), it still wouldn’t quite be able to match up to American Graffiti.  But it is a great film, well-made, well-directed, well-written, well-acted and it is a lot of fun and it isn’t that often that the Academy chooses something that encompasses all of that.

The Academy finally realizes that Bergman is the top film-maker in the world.

Cries and Whispers (Viskningar och rop)

  • Director:  Ingmar Bergman
  • Writer:  Ingmar Bergman
  • Producer:  Ingmar Bergman
  • Studio:  New World Pictures
  • Stars:  Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Thulin, Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan, Erland Josephson
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Story and Screenplay – Based on Factual Material or Material Not Previously Published or Produced, Cinematography, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  200
  • Length:  91 min
  • Genre:  Foreign (Drama)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  21 December 1972
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #7  (nominees)  /  #10  (all-time)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress (Ullmann), Actress (Thulin), Supporting Actor (Josephson), Supporting Actress (Andersson), Supporting Actress (Sylwan), Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup, Foreign Film (1972)
  • Nighthawk Points:  715

The Film:  “Red represents for me the interior of the soul.”  Those are Ingmar Bergman’s words.  It’s good that we know that, because red is everywhere.  Bergman long resisted the urge to shoot in color.  Even after he first relented in 1964, he returned to black and white for his late sixties classics: Persona, Hour of the Wolf and The Shame.  But Cries and Whispers changes everything and it’s no surprise that it not only forced the Academy to finally really sit up and take notice.  He had twice been nominated for his writing (Wild Strawberries, Through A Glass Darkly) and The Virgin Spring and Through a Glass Darkly had won Best Foreign Film in back-to-back years in the early sixties.  But the Academy had also failed to nominate The Seventh Seal, The Magician and Persona when they were submitted for Best Foreign Film.  This time the Academy would give Bergman himself three nominations and reward his longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist with his first Oscar (his second would come a decade later with another Bergman film – Fanny and Alexander).  Certainly it was the use of color, the way each shot seemed to be composed as if it were a still photograph, yet never lingering over-long on the screen that finally lead to Oscar recognition.

When Bergman died three years ago it meant that the Swedish Academy had lost a chance to explore new grounds on what we commonly think of as literature.  While The Seventh Seal is perhaps Bergman’s most famous work, it is actually Cries and Whispers that is his best film.  What he does in the course of 91 minutes is present a familial relationship with greater depth, clarity, and emotional power than has been done by nearly any person who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  That he chose to write these words for characters to say on screen does not make it any less literature (after all – a number of playwrights have won the Nobel over the years and most of them will gladly tell you that their plays are meant to be performed, not simply to be read).

Of course, by the time he made this film, Bergman had been working with a number of the same actors for years, if not decades.  For the three sisters he cast Harriet Andersson (a member of Bergman’s troupe for over 20 years), Ingrid Thulin (star of Winter Light and Wild Strawberries – two of Bergman’s best) and Liv Ullmann (at the peak of her abilities, just off The Emigrants and The New Land and just before teaming again with Bergman for Scenes from a Marriage).  Over the years the women had all learned how to work with Bergman and how to work with each other and the result is the career best performance of three of the greatest actresses of all-time.  The three of them bounce off each other with hate and envy, and the occasional love.  But the bonds of family tear them apart as much as bringing them together and Ullmann and Thulin are so wrapped up in their own problems to remember that they are there for their dying sister, played in a gut-wrenching performance by Andersson.  On some levels this is a Horror film.  When one thinks of a bloody, brutal scene involving a female cutting their groin, you could be thinking of either The Exorcist or Cries and Whispers.  And the way a woman reacts to her husband stabbing himself in response to her infidelities is, on some levels, as horrific as anything in The Exorcist.  It is certainly not a film for the light-hearted or for anyone who watches film in order to escape.  This film will make you think and recoil in horror, but also will make you realize that Bergman brought a level of serious writing to film that no one, before or after, has yet to match.

The Exorcist: a film like no other

The Exorcist

  • Director:  William Friedkin
  • Writer:  William Peter Blatty  (based on his novel)
  • Producer:  William Peter Blatty
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Max Von Sydow, Linda Blair, Lee J. Cobb
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay – Based on Material From Another Medium, Actress (Burstyn), Supporting Actor (Miller), Supporting Actress (Blair), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction
  • Oscar Points:  380
  • Length:  122 min
  • Genre:  Horror
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $193.00 mil  (#1  –  1973;  #1  –  all-time, upon initial release)
  • Release Date:  26 December 1973
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #67  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Burstyn), Supporting Actor (Miller), Supporting Actress (Blair), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  480

The Film:  Two of the best films of 1973 revolve around the presence of a female in bed in great pain.  Both of them deal with issues of religion, of the place of God in the world and whether or not that presence (or lack thereof) can release the pain and allow for some freedom.  But the similarities between Cries and Whispers and The Exorcist pretty much end there.  Bergman’s film is dark and meditative, filled with color and explored and unexplored relationships.  Friedkin’s film is also dark, but hardly meditative, seems almost drained of color and the relationships hardly seem to matter.  Bergman’s films wants us to think and from that thought comes feeling.  Friedkin’s film makes us feel and if anything, we retreat to our thoughts to get away from the emotions.

The Exorcist is really a film like no other.  Of the 25 films on my list of the best Horror films of all-time, the only other film even close to it in concept is Rosemary’s Baby.  This isn’t a film about a supernatural monster.  This is a film that deals with the very depths of evil and terror that come with the concept of religion.  It treats all of it as real – God, the Devil, and everything in between.  That alone would make for an unsettling experience.  That it is also extremely well-made doesn’t set it that far apart from many of the other films on the list.  But there is no Horror film that has this level of acting.  There are some great performances in the films on the list (Naomi Watts in King Kong, Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, Sissy Spacek in Carrie), but The Exorcist has great acting all across the board.  None of the major players in the film end up winning Nighthawk Awards in their categories, but, ironically, I think Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller and Linda Blair all deserved Oscars.  Those actors who finish ahead of them in my awards (Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Thulin for Actress, Robert De Niro for Mean Streets, Harriet Andersson and Kari Sylwan for Supporting Actress) all went un-nominated.  Of the five nominees in each category, it is the three performances from The Exorcist that deserved the Oscars.  How many Horror films in film history can claim that kind of achievement.  That does even include the solid performance from Max Von Sydow in the title role.

There is no question that this is an unsettling film.  For any person who has strong religious beliefs, this film would be difficult to watch.  Not necessarily problematic, because it doesn’t mock those beliefs – in fact, when modern psychology fails it is the church that ends up coming through to save the poor disturbed girl – but it makes you confront your own notions of what you believe when it comes to God and the Devil.  Then of course, there is the sheer gross-out factor in the film – pretty much any scene involving Blair in the final hour of the film is disgusting beyond belief – especially the scene where she vomits all over the poor priest.  Then there is the sheer vulgarity of it – the kind of things you hear being said will make your jaw drop.  There are even the back story aspects of making the film – the way that Friedkin permanently injured Burstyn’s spine then kept filming, the way Mercedes McCambridge was cheated out of credit for the voice of the Devil, the brutal way that Friedkin interacted with cast and crew.

the Exorcist steps as they looked on 6 August 2004 - when I stopped the car and took the picture

The question comes down to what you want out of a film.  Do you want to be entertained?  There is no question that many will find The Exorcist entertaining.  There are those who loved to be shocked and frightened at the movies and The Exorcist still has the ability to do that as well as any film ever made.  Do you want to watch perfection of the craft?  The film has brilliant direction, is so well written that it won the Oscar (much better written than the best selling novel from which it is adapted), is made with exquisite craft (just look at the shot on the poster – one of the most well known shots in film history) and has probably the best acting of any film ever made in the genre.  But do you come to escape?  This film will not help you escape.  It might make you think and it will sure as hell make you feel – though what you feel depends entirely on who you are.  I feel pity for the poor priest who is in so far over his head and is trying desperately to help this poor little girl while mourning his mother and who makes the ultimate sacrifice, calling the devil to himself before he leaps through that window.  Everything for him comes crashing down to those stairs.  Those magnificent, cinematic stairs that still sit in the shadow of the gas station.  The kind of film location that so evokes a particular image that you stop the car and get out and have a stranger take your picture.

American Graffiti still rings true, at least for me.

American Graffiti

  • Director:  George Lucas
  • Writer:  George Lucas  /  Gloria Katz  /  Willard Huyck
  • Producer:  Francis Ford Coppola  /  Gary Kurtz
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Stars:  Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Paul LeMat, Charles Martin Smith, MacKenzie Phillips, Candy Clark
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Story and Screenplay – Based on Factual Material or Material Not Previously Published or Produced, Supporting Actress (Clark), Editing
  • Oscar Points:  180
  • Length:  110 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $115.00 mil  (#3  –  1973; #6  –  all-time, upon initial release)
  • Release Date:  11 August 1973
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #4  (year)  /  #102  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actress (Clark), Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  145

The Film:  There was an argument, when the film was made, that it was being made for the people who were in their 20’s and 30’s and that neither the teens nor the older generations would be able to relate to it.  That might have been true at the time, but somehow I doubt it.  Certainly that opinion has not held up.  Certainly by the time I watched it in high school (thanks to the wonders of commercials – specifically WGN commercials that mention both Game 4 of the NLCS and the loss by the Bears to the Bucs, dropping them to 4-1, I can pinpoint that I taped my copy of this movie on October 8, 1989), everything had come around.  They might not have been using the same slang that I was and their music might not have been the same, but I could relate to the idea of drifting around in the car, waiting, hoping for just something to happen.  When you’re that age, most of your time is spent in that car listening to the music.  Back then the DJ ruled the roost.  In my day it was mostly mix tapes.  Today it’s IPod’s and XM radio, but in a very real sense it’s still the same.  And hell, listening to the 60’s station, or, in L.A., where I grew up, tuning in to K-EARTH – the most widely listened to radio station west of the Hudson – you could still listen to these same great songs.  We might not have cared as much about the cars we were driving (a 1983 Nissan Stanza is not exactly the same thing as a 55 Chevy), but we cared about the music.  I had three rules in my car: lock your door, put on your seatbelt, and no changing the station when Springsteen is on the radio.

But there are a lot of films about teens, about those lonely days when high school has just ended, or when it is ending for some of you but not the rest.  What makes this one of the best is how real all of the characters seem.  They all fill specific roles, but they inhabit those roles perfectly.  This is one of those difficult films where it is hard to pinpoint a specific performance because they all seem to fit together and pulling out one will shift everything out of balance.  From those quick appearances of Suzanne Summers as the perfect blonde in the Thunderbird, to Wolfman Jack sitting there eating popsicles, right up through to the leads.  It is perhaps ironic that an actor added almost as an afterthought, who wore a cowboy hat because he refused to cut his hair for the role would become not only bigger than all the others combined, but the biggest star in the world.

We can think about the individual moments and realize how they came about almost by fate.  Charles Martin Smith wasn’t scripted to crash the Vespa – he lost control.  MacKenzie Phillips wasn’t supposed to be hit by the water balloon – it was an errant throw.  The conversation between LeMat and Smith was improvised.  The final moment where Williams convinces Howard not to leave wasn’t written and they had to be pulled out of street clothes to film the scene.  But all of them fit together into the larger pieces of the movie, to the vision of a smalltown and the desire to escape.  Lucas had escaped from the slow streets of Modesto, to the lot of Universal where the higher-ups wanted to ditch the film until Coppola screamed at them in a meeting that they should all be down on their knees and thanking Lucas for saving their asses.  And he did.  While Fox brags about the grosses Avatar and its $760 million box office take, if it had the same rate of return that American Graffiti had it would have grossed $35 billion.  Indeed, American Graffiti still sits at #9 all-time in terms of rate of investment return (8909%).

Then there is the soundtrack.  Certainly rock music had already become a part of larger movie culture, especially in the wake of The Graduate and Easy Rider.  But American Graffiti still stands tall as one of the greatest soundtracks in the history.  From the beat of “Rock Around the Clock” in the opening credits, right through to the very end with “All Summer Long” over the end credits, every song is perfect.  If you want to start a collection of great songs from the early sixties – before the British Invasion began – the single best place to begin is to buy the American Graffiti soundtrack.

How in the hell did this get nominated over Serpico and Last Tango in Paris?

A Touch of Class

  • Director:  Melvin Frank
  • Writer:  Melvin Frank  /  Jack Rose
  • Producer:  Melvin Frank
  • Studio:  Avco Embassy
  • Stars:  George Segal, Glenda Jackson
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Story and Screenplay – Based on Factual Material or Material Not Previously Published or Produced, Actress, Original Dramatic Score, Song (“All That Love Went to Waste”)
  • Oscar Points:  195
  • Length:  106 min
  • Genre:  Comedy (Romantic)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $16.80 mil
  • Release Date:  20 June 1973
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #51  (year)  /  #391  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  A Touch of Class?  Really?  Over the years the Academy had failed to nominate Sabrina, Some Like It Hot or Breakfast at Tiffany’s and in later years Manhattan and When Harry Met Sally would likewise fail to make the final list.  Yet, A Touch of Class, a marginal romantic comedy with a rather unlikeable couple at the heart of the story somehow made the list.  In the same year when Mean Streets failed to earn any Oscar nominations and Last Tango in Paris and Serpico would earn major nominations but fail to make the final list, enough Academy voters thought this was one of the best films of the year.

It’s a tricky thing when you want to make a romantic comedy that hinges around a married person.  You have to find just the right mix of making the affair seem palatable without inspiring too much sympathy for the unknowing spouse or taking away too much sympathy from the cheating spouse.  After all, what is the point of a romantic comedy if you don’t like the couple at the heart of the film?  Except that is precisely the problem.  They don’t manage to make us like the George Segal character very much.  He is inspired by some lust for Glenda Jackson and so they embark on an affair and we’re supposed to enjoy it.  That the couple at the heart of this don’t even seem to like each other very much doesn’t really help the situation.  Nor does the fact that Jackson is playing a fashion designer yet doesn’t wear a single outfit in the entire film that looks even halfway fashionable.

The fact is that Glenda Jackson is a very talented actress, that there was a stretch in the early seventies when she was just about the best in the business.  She gives a performance that manages to rise way above the level of the material and somehow managed to win the Oscar.  But it is not a particularly good example of the genre and the more I think about it, the more likely I am to start reducing its rating.  Maybe they just wanted to salute the sheer professionalism of a film directed, written and produced by a man who had been around Hollywood for three decades.  Or perhaps the voters didn’t like the dark, stark reality of Serpico and they found Last Tango in Paris just a bit too daring.  Of course, they would also have had to convince themselves of flaws in The Last Detail, The Day of the Jackal and Paper Moon.  I could go on and on, of course, because while enough members of the Academy thought that was a good film that it made their final five, I can list 50 different films from the year that were better.