"I know it was you." The tragic revelatory scene in The Godfather Part II.

The 47th annual Academy Awards for the film year 1974.  The nominations were announced on February 24, 1975 and the awards were held on April 8, 1975.

Best Picture:  The Godfather Part II

  • Chinatown
  • The Conversation
  • Lenny
  • The Towering Inferno

Most Surprising Omission:  Day for Night

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Day for Night

Best Eligible English-Language Film Not Nominated:  Badlands

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #16

Rank Note:  If they had nominated Day for Night instead of The Towering Inferno, it would rank #1

The Race: For a second straight year, the race began in the previous year.  The National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics had both chosen Day for Night as the best film of 1973 but it didn’t play in Los Angeles until after the new year and thus became the first critical hit of 1974.  It then won Best Foreign Film at the Oscars and seemed to be following in the path of The Emigrants and Cries and Whispers and that Truffaut would finally join Bergman on the Best Picture list.  It was likely going to be up against The Godfather Part II, as Paramount had convinced Francis Ford Coppola to make a sequel to the 1972 Best Picture winner and box office success.  But first, Coppola had made a smaller film called The Conversation which suddenly sprung out of the gate with great reviews and the Golden Palm at Cannes.  But suddenly out came Chinatown, the new film from Roman Polanski, produced by Robert Evans and starring Jack Nicholson, who was coming off three Oscar nominations in five years.  On the other end of the scale, John Cassavetes’ latest small film starring his wife, Gena Rowlands, A Woman Under the Influence, was also making great strides with the critics.  While Cassavetes had a hard time getting his film made, Bob Fosse was coming off his Oscar win for Cabaret and had convinced Dustin Hoffman to play Lenny Bruce in his new biopic.  With Coppola riding strong and the second Godfather due before Christmas, it looked like a potential Fosse-Coppola rematch.  Next up was the all-star cast in Murder on the Orient Express, Sidney Lumet’s follow-up to Serpico.

With Christmas came two of the biggest films of the year.  First there was The Towering Inferno, following in the steps of The Poseidon Adventure as the new big disaster film (and earning huge box office receipts) and The Godfather Part II, coming out right at Christmas and blowing the critics away.  Finally, at the end of the year came the new Martin Scorsese film, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

The first critics group up was the National Board of Review and they loved Coppola – but it was The Conversation not The Godfather Part II that took home Best Picture, Director and Actor.  Landing in the top 10 were Murder on the Orient Express, Chinatown, A Woman Under the Influence and Lenny.  The New York Film Critics, though, were absolutely no help.  For the third year in a row they had picked a foreign film that was not yet Oscar eligible – this time Fellini’s Amarcord.  The National Society of Film Critics went a step further.  Their Best Picture pick was Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, which had earned critical raves but was not Oscar eligible at all because it had played on Swedish television the year before.

With the Golden Globe nominations, the picture started to get a bit clearer.  Chinatown, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation and A Woman Under the Influence were all nominated for Best Picture – Drama, Best Director and Best Screenplay.  The fifth Director slot went to Lenny, but oddly the final Picture slot went to the lesser disaster film Earthquake and the fifth Screenplay slot to the better received disaster film The Towering Inferno.  When Chinatown swept the three major awards and took home Best Actor for good measure, things looked good for it.  But at the Directors Guild, it was Coppola who came out on top, beating himself, Fosse, Polanski and Lumet.  The Writers Guild made nothing any clearer as both Chinatown and The Godfather Part II won awards, being in separate categories.  Day for Night was absent from the Guilds, but The Emigrants and Cries and Whispers had likewise missed out on any guild nominations and it had not slowed down their momentum.

Headed into the actual nominations think looked great for Chinatown, The Godfather Part II and The Conversation.  Things also looked good for Lenny, with slightly lesser chances for Day for Night, Murder on the Orient Express and A Woman Under the Influence.

The Results: Chinatown and The Godfather Part II tied with 11 nominations each.  Lenny had also done well, with 6 nominations, so there would be a Coppola-Fosse rematch.  Truffaut was in but his film was not, as he took the director slot that was vacated by The Conversation making the Best Picture lineup (Academy rules did not allow multiple nominations for a director).  Murder on the Orient Express had 6 nominations, but Lumet and his film were out the final race yet again.  Instead, Cassavetes slipped into the final Best Director slot, and coming out of nowhere, The Towering Inferno picked up the final Best Picture nomination.

It looked like a race between Chinatown and The Godfather Part II, but once the awards began, it was clear that it was no race at all.  By the end of the night, The Godfather Part II had picked up 6 Oscars, including three for Coppola himself while Chinatown had to settle for a single Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  The Towering Inferno ended up with more Oscars (3) than Chinatown, The Conversation and Lenny combined (1).

The Godfather Part II took home twice as many Oscars as the original film - including 3 for Coppola and one for his dad.

The Godfather Part II

  • Director:  Francis Ford Coppola
  • Writer:  Francis Ford Coppola  /  Mario Puzo  (from the novel The Godfather by Puzo and characters created by Puzo)
  • Producer:  Francis Ford Coppola  /  Gray Frederickson  /  Fred Roos
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, John Cazale, Michael V. Gazzo, Lee Strasberg, Talia Shire
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Adapted from Another Medium, Actor (Pacino), Supporting Actor (De Niro), Supporting Actor (Gazzo), Supporting Actor (Strasberg), Supporting Actress (Shire), Original Dramatic Score, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  560
  • Length:  200 min
  • Genre:  Crime  (Gangster)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $57.30 mil  (#6  –  1974)
  • Release Date:  20 December 1974
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #45  (nominees)  /  #17  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Pacino), Supporting Actor (De Niro), Supporting Actor (Gazzo), Supporting Actor (Cazale), Supporting Actor (Strasberg), Supporting Actress (Shire), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Sound Editing, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  550

The Film: Certainly those people sitting in the theaters in 1974 must have known they were seeing a great film.  Given the phenomenal box office and critical success of the first film and the Oscar for Best Picture, they must have known that great things would be in the second film and perhaps that it would even compete for Best Picture, though no sequel had ever won.  But there was certainly precedent for it being nominated – after all, The Bells of St. Mary’s had been nominated the year after Going My Way won Best Picture.  It was, in some ways, a more complex film than the first, bouncing back and forth between the early rise of Vito Corleone, being played by Robert De Niro, entirely in Sicilian, and the moral downfall of Michael Corleone in the late 50’s, but never losing track of where it was going.

But then comes that magic moment at the end of the film.  You’ve been along with the characters who survived the first film (Michael, Kay, Connie, Tom, Fredo), as well as those new characters brought in for the new film (the young Vito, Hyman Roth, Frankie).  But then, suddenly, after all the deaths, at the end of the film, you see James Caan and you catch your breath for a minute.  Then in comes Abe Vigoda and you marvel at how magnificent this scene is — how perfectly it reminds us of how well established the family is on film by the end of these six hours.  There are several shots of the table itself, with everyone sitting around it and with each succeeding shot, someone is gone.  There is a wonderful moment with the brothers – Tom, Fredo, Sonny, Michael – all sitting around arguing about Michael’s announcement of having joined the Marines.  Soon, it will only be Michael, alone in his decision and we move forward some 25 years and there is Michael, still alone in his decisions.

Coppola made the right choice in how he decided to structure this film.  And while the early parts of the film come from the original Puzo novel as do the characters, it is Coppola who writes the further chronicles of Michael Corleone.  This has always been Michael’s story – this is clear if you read the novel and even the original film revolved around Michael and his decisions, ending on that final brilliant shot where he is established as Don Corleone.  And the films work precisely because Coppola so perfectly cast Michael.  Pacino didn’t win an Oscar for any of the Godfather films, though his performances are as good in all three as those who did win the Oscars.  And where he had lost actors, he replaced them.  In place of Richard Castellano (whether because of salary disputes or weight disputes is disputed) he brought in Michael V. Gazzo.  And to play Hyman Roth, they brought in Lee Strasberg, the grand don of method acting who had taught Brando and De Niro and Pacino.  There was no person more appropriate for the situation.

What’s even more amazing is the original version they prepared that they previewed did not do well.  It was decided that there was too much inter-cutting and they needed to pare it back a little and let each story tell a bit more before transitioning back.  And in that perfect final scene, it was expected that Brando would be there and when he didn’t show, Coppola had to re-write the scene and shoot it.  Even great art needs a little help sometimes.  There’s no question that what come out of it was a film that is universally acknowledged as a masterpiece.

Even the poster for Chinatown is perfect

Chinatown

  • Director:  Roman Polanski
  • Writer:  Robert Towne
  • Producer:  Robert Evans
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Nicholson), Actress (Dunaway), Editing, Cinematography, Original Dramatic Score, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  375
  • Length:  130 min
  • Genre:  Mystery  (Detective)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $23.16 mil
  • Release Date:  20 June 1974
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #4  (nominees)  /  #7  (all-time)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Nicholson), Actress (Dunaway), Supporting Actor (Huston), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Sound Editing, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  720

The Film: This film contains not only the finest performance of Jack Nicholson’s long and storied career, but perhaps the finest film performance by anyone other than Marlon Brando in Streetcar.  And of course, to the Academy’s eternal shame they didn’t give him the Oscar (but then, they didn’t give it to Brando either).  Of course, if it were just about the Nicholson performance this film wouldn’t nearly be so memorable or so brilliant.  It also contains the following: one of the best performances from one of the best actresses of the decade, a brilliant supporting performance by an actor with a phenomenal voice, first rate technical aspects, from perfect costumes, to wonderful art direction to fantastic editing, to incredible cinematography to a score that is absolutely perfect at every minute (so well pointed out by David Fincher in the commentary on the DVD).  And at this point I have not mentioned that it contains one of the greatest scripts ever written directly for film and the single best direction of one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema.  There.  That’s really all you need to know.

But of course, that is just the surface.  I could tell how perfect Chinatown was the very first time I saw it, back in high school.  But I came to it from the perfect direction.  I was raised in Los Angeles, can hear the words of Randy Newman, my father’s classmate, echoing in my mind as I write this (“Looks like another perfect day /  I love L.A.”).  I come from lines of Los Angeles residents, straight back to my great (add six greats) grandfather who was there when the city was first founded on 5 September, 1781.  Not only that, but I have a great love for the hard boiled detective genre and already worshiped at the altar of Dashiell Hammett on both film and the page before I ever saw Chinatown.  That this film should so perfectly combine two of this aspects makes it the perfect film for me.

First, there is Los Angeles.  Robert Towne’s script has the perfect angle on the city – “If you can’t bring the water to L.A., bring L.A. to the water.”  Los Angeles is a desert, albiet a well-irrigated one so people often forget that.  There was the Owens Valley water scandal in which the people of Los Angeles (and there are a lot of them) basically hoodwinked water from the Owens Valley to allow themselves to survive.  This film perfectly examines the story of how L.A. became the city that it did.

But there is also the story.  Apparently the original script contained a voiceover by Gittes, but that was the wrong choice.  It works better the way it was made – that he finds out things as we do, that he is not always right, though he always tries to be confident.  He has some perfect lines (“Just so long as you don’t serve the chicken that way.” “He died two weeks ago and one week ago he bought the land.  That’s unusual.”), he has the perfect manner, he even gets beat up much in the tradition of some of the best detectives.  He also gets the girl, at least for a time.  That the girl is so perfectly upper-class and so well played by Faye Dunaway and that her father, played by John Huston, is so unbelievably damn creepy, only adds to the overall feeling.  (By the way, every time I hear Huston I think of Gandalf – how odd that he should so perfectly represent both good and evil).  Like all great mysteries, it has a great story behind it and it has a great detective as well.

Chinatown had the misfortune to run up against The Godfather Part II at the Oscars.  But that only accounts for four of its ten losses.  It, rather inexplicably lost Best Actor (as the New York Daily News put it: “Not since Ray Milland guzzled his way to an Oscar in The Lost Weekend has an actor been such a sure bet as Jack Nicholson.”), lost Actress, somehow didn’t get nominated for Supporting Actor and then, most horrifyingly of all, lost Editing and Cinematography to The Towering Inferno.  One of the greatest films ever made, a perfect trumph on every level and its only Oscar was for its brilliant original script.  Of course, that’s nothing to be ashamed of.  It just puts it on the same page with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Citizen Kane, The Crying Game and Pulp Fiction.

The Conversation earned Francis Ford Coppola two of his incredible five Oscar nominations in 1974

The Conversation

  • Director:  Francis Ford Coppola
  • Writer:  Francis Ford Coppola
  • Producer:  Francis Ford Coppola
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Harrison Ford, Teri Garr, Allen Garfield
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Original Screenplay, Sound
  • Oscar Points:  110
  • Length:  113 min
  • Genre:  Suspense
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $4.42 mil
  • Release Date:  7 April 1974
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #4  (year)  /  #98  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Hackman), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  280

The Film: It had been 32 years since a director had two films nominated for Best Picture in the same year and that was back when there were 10 nominees.  Academy rules prevented Coppola from being nominated twice (the rule must have changed prior to 2000 but no one seems to known when).  What was even more impressive was that he actually deserved both nominations.  How often do directors make two films this good in the same year?  (The answer, by the way is three – in 1941 when Preston Sturges made both Sullivan’s Travels and The Lady Eve, in 1942 when Michael Curtiz made Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy and in 1957 when Ingmar Bergman made The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries.)

In his Great Movies review of The Conversation, Roger Ebert mentions how bad Harry Caul is at his job.  This is a man whose job it is to eavesdrop upon people and he doesn’t realize that people know he is there, that he can get himself bugged by a rival and be outwitted by his employers, not to mention the access of his landlord to his mailbox and apartment and the revelation of his unlisted phone number.  But to focus on those doesn’t really show that Caul is bad at his job.  He is very good at his job – which is to listen to people, record them without their knowing it, and make the best possibly version of the recording.  That is his job and he is phenomenal at it.  What he is terrible at is any understanding of human nature, even his own.  He talks about how he is not responsible for the death of a child, when the guilt so obviously pushes down on him everyday.  He doesn’t understand his girlfriend, or his rivals, or anyone else that he is forced to deal with in his business.  He doesn’t understand how he pushes one of his own associates away to go work for a loudmouth rival who is well known for all the reasons that Caul would prefer to be unknown.

This film is actually indicative of something else.  For all the hoopla of having two Oscars, Gene Hackman is actually under-rated by the Academy.  After winning three nominations in five years and his first Oscar, it would 18 years before he would again earn a nomination.  There was nothing for The Conversation or Night Moves or Superman or later for The Royal Tenenbaums.  This is one of his best performances because it is so unlike Hackman, so quiet, so reserved.  Yet he failed to even be nominated in a year in which the Academy actually gave an Oscar to Art Carney.

One of the other great things about this film is the evidence of how brilliant Walter Murch is.  Though he was still just the Sound Editor on this film, he did much of the editing as well and would soon go on to even greater things – including Oscars for Apocalypse Now and The English Patient.  It is clear from this how good Murch is at manipulating sound, of making it all work together.  Hackman’s performance is the heart of the film, but Murch’s technical virtuosity is the soul of the film.

Fosse vs. Coppola for Picture and Director - round 2

Lenny

  • Director:  Bob Fosse
  • Writer:  Julian Barry  (from his play)
  • Producer:  Marvin Worth
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Dustin Hoffman, Valerie Perrine
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Adapted from Another Medium, Actor (Hoffman), Actress (Perrine), Cinematography
  • Oscar Points:  230
  • Length:  111 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Biopic)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  10 November 1974
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #11  (year)  /  #206  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Hoffman), Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  100

The Film: Even if I had never seen All That Jazz, it would be easy to see that Lenny was created primarily in the editing process.  It is a well written film, it is well directed, it has one hell of a performance by Dustin Hoffman in the lead performance, a very good performance by Valerie Perrine as his wife and is well-filmed.  But there is still no question that the real star of the film is Alan Heim and the job that he did (overseen by director Bob Fosse) in taking the various performances by Lenny Bruce over the years, intermixing it with his trials and his personal life.  Yet, somehow, the Academy seemed to think the formless editing of The Towering Inferno, a film that meanders, takes forever and then ends with massive explosions in which it seems like we see the same thing over and over again was award worthy and that the brilliant composition of Lenny wasn’t even worth nominating.

This film is a great reminder that while these days Dustin Hoffman might make some pretty cheesy choices, just like De Niro, once he was the edgiest actor around.  He wouldn’t win an Oscar until he played a fairly conventional role of a divorced father raising his kid in Kramer vs. Kramer, but his talent shines fully through more in films like Midnight Cowboy and Lenny.  He’s damn short, but he projects presence like few other actors do.  He brings Lenny Bruce to life, not just as a comic, but as a human being, as a man who understood the power of language and words and wanted the rest of the world to acknowledge what he had come to understand.

And of course, Fosse did a great job with the film.  It is perfect to have it in black-and-white, as Lenny’s whole point was to make the world see how many shades of gray there were out there.  He presents the film broken into little bits, but we never get lost, we always know exactly where we are and we actually get a pretty good understanding of who Bruce was, what his talent was, how good he truly was onstage, and how tragic were the demons that haunted him.  As a comic, he was expected to make people laugh.  But like many of the best comics, he really made people think.

Trust the Academy to throw in at least one piece of crap every few years

The Towering Inferno

  • Director:  John Guillermin
  • Writer:  Stirling Silliphant  (from the novels The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson)
  • Producer:  Irwin Allen
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox  /  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Supporting Actor (Astaire), Editing, Cinematography, Original Dramatic Score, Sound, Art Direction, Song (“We May Never Love Like This Again”)
  • Oscar Points:  265
  • Length:  165 min
  • Genre:  Adventure  (Disaster)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $116.00 mil  (#2  –  1974)
  • Release Date:  10 December 1974
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #62  (year)  /  #456  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Visual Effects, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  40

The Film: This is another of those films that are difficult to judge in a vacuum.  On the one hand, it was always a ridiculous film, always a terrible choice for Best Picture (or worse, a nominee from the Writers Guild).  But was it ever thought of in terms of quality?  It was a major production – the first real joint venture between two major studios (Fox and Warner), the child of producer Irwin Allen (who also, reputedly, did much of the directing), it had two huge stars and it opened right at Christmas.  Naturally it was one of the biggest hits of the year and the decade.  But did anyone think they were making a good film?  Or were they satisfied with the idea that they were just there to provide people with a good time.  Of course, it is possible to do both and McQueen and Newman had been two of the best at doing that in great films that are also incredibly fun to watch like The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting.  So, can we sit back and enjoy the film for what it is – a piece of pure popcorn fluff that was never meant to be taken too seriously, even given the star quality involved?

Well, in a word, no.  And there are two reasons for that.  The first one is that the film no longer exists in a vacuum.  Even when I first watched it back in the 90’s I couldn’t enjoy it much because it’s so ridiculously awful and was nominated over films Day for Night and Murder on the Orient Express.  But now it gets viewed in the aftermath of 9/11 quite differently.  Who can enjoy a ridiculous scene of idiots falling from the building due to their own stupidity when you’ve seen real people jump to their deaths because at least it gave them a choice.  Now the film is just painful.

And let’s face it – it was always painful in a way.  It is horribly acted.  Fred Astaire is decent and enjoyable but not of the quality that the awards groups would make you think and he is the only person in a cast that includes Newman, McQueen, Dunaway and Holden who doesn’t make you cringe.  And of course that’s because the script is just awful.  And the film itself is just ridiculous – the way it piles on problem after problem.  It wants to make you care about the little people but it’s hard to really care about anyone in the film.  It has nice effects – they even still look pretty decent after all this time, but the editing is pretty bad (the film just drags forever), the cinematography is not awards-worthy and don’t even get me started on the Oscar-winning song.

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