Jack Nicholson took home Best Actor. This is one of his quieter moments in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975).

The 48th annual Academy Awards, for the film year 1975.  The nominations were announced on February 17, 1976 and the awards were held on March 29, 1976.

Best Picture:  One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest

  • Jaws
  • Dog Day Afternoon
  • Barry Lyndon
  • Nashville

Most Surprising Omission:  Amarcord

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #19

The Race: For a third straight year, the awards race began before the year did.  At the end of December of 1974, the New York Film Critics had given their Best Picture and Director to Amarcord, which would be eligible for the 1975 Academy Awards.  It had received great reviews and Fellini, though nominated three times for Best Director, had never had a film nominated for Best Picture and only gained momentum by winning Best Foreign Film at the Oscars in April.

But then came news of the new Robert Altman film via a very early review by Pauline Kael.  Kael could not heap enough praise on it and suddenly critics were falling all over themselves to figure out who could love it the most.  But while Nashville would climb to just under $10 million at the box office, Jaws would do that in a weekend.  The new horror film from young director Steven Spielberg suddenly was breaking box office records throughout the summer and before its theatrical run was finished it had passed The Exorcist to become the first film to gross over $200 million and established itself as the new all-time box office champ.  In contrast to Jaws and the two big comedies of the year, The Sunshine Boys and Shampoo, Dog Day Afternoon began to season of serious films.  Sidney Lumet had earned back to back DGA nominations for Serpico and Murder on the Orient Express but had fallen short at the Oscars both years, but this time critical praise was through the roof.

But it felt short compared to the big film of the fall: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  The adaptation of Ken Kesey’s cult novel earned great critical praise and became yet another serious film to break the $100 million mark at the box office.  It looked strong enough to fend off the new release from Stanley Kubrick: an adaptation of Thackerey’s Barry Lyndon.

With Kael leading the way, Nashville took home Best Picture at the New York Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics (only their second American choice ever – and both of them Altman films), while tying for first at the National Board of Review with Barry Lyndon.  It had taken the lead by being the first film to ever win three critics groups.  But there was a new critics group in town and their choice was also a tie – the new L.A. Film Critics opted for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Dog Day Afternoon.  With Best Director going to the same films (except in L.A. where it went only to Dog Day), it looked like four of the five nominees were set before the Globes or Guilds even had their say.  They just cemented the front-runners, as for the first time, all five films to earn Picture and Director nominations at the Globes also received DGA nominations, with Jaws joining in with the big four.  With WGA nominations for all five of those films as well, it looked like Shampoo and The Sunshine Boys, in spite of WGA wins (and three Golden Globes for Sunshine Boys) were going to be out of the race.  Cuckoo took the lead, winning the DGA, the WGA and becoming the first film to ever sweep Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor and Actress at the Globes.

The Results: All five films were in, but Spielberg was out in favor of Fellini.  For a second straight year the previous year’s Best Foreign Film was nominated for Director and Screenplay but not Picture.  The Sunshine Boys and Shampoo had four nominations each, but were both out of the Picture race.  Cuckoo had the lead with nine nominations and when the big night arrived, it repeated its Globes success, becoming only the second film to ever sweep the big 5 awards at the Oscars.

Results Note: Not only do all five directors of the nominated films make my Top 100, they all make the Top 50.

the second film to win the big 5 Oscars: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest

  • Director:  Milos Forman
  • Writer:  Lawrence Hauben  /  Bo Goldman  (from the novel by Ken Kesey)
  • Producer:  Saul Zaentz  /  Michael Douglas
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Brad Dourif
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Adapted from Other Material, Actor (Nicholson), Actress (Fletcher), Supporting Actor (Dourif), Editing, Cinematography, Score
  • Oscar Points:  515
  • Length:  133 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Social)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $108.98 mil  (#3  –  1975)
  • Release Date:  19 November 1975
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #150  (nominees)  /  #39  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Nicholson), Actress (Fletcher), Supporting Actor (Dourif), Original Score, Art Direction
  • Nighthawk Points:  390

The Film:  In 1974 he gave one of the greatest performances in film history – a smart, subtle performance that seemed like it came wholesale from the late thirties themselves and the Academy instead decided to give the Oscar to Art Carney.  So, it seemed like he said, fine, I’ll bring it up a notch and give a performance that you can’t possibly pass up.  And he did.  His Randle Patrick McMurphy is a spark plug.  He wouldn’t need the electro-shock therapy to make the next woman he bangs light up like a pinball machine – he’ll provide all the electricity himself.

His performance is much like his favorite team – the Showtime Lakers of the 1980’s – run and gun and run and gun and wear down the opponent until they can’t do anything else except try to keep up and fail.  But Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, well, she is something else all together.  She is much more like Riley’s Knicks of the mid-nineties – her defense will keep you from doing anything until you are so frustrated you just want to shoot yourself.  Both methods are surefire ways of success (don’t mention that the Knicks didn’t win a title under Riley – I could have used the Spurs for my analogy but the double Riley mention is more poetic).  That’s why they both won the Oscars and they are both part of what makes this film so successful.  It was a huge financial success and went out to become only the second film to take home the big 5 at the Oscars and the only film to ever take home the big 5 at the Golden Globes.

But there’s something that doesn’t fit quite right with the film.  Watch it and you’ll feel along with it and you’ll be appalled and thrilled and you’ll laugh and you’ll feel like throwing up.  But it doesn’t really want you to think.  It is not really a portrayal of mental illness.  After all, McMurphy isn’t crazy – it’s everyone around him.  And of course, when he is able to bring a little life into the place, then all the idiosyncratic aspects of the other characters just fall away.  The most emotional moment of the film – when Billy is finally to break away from Nurse Ratched’s horrorshow, is also its least realistic.  But I don’t think the film is supposed to make you think.  It is a parable about being allowed to be different and the kind of people that society shunts aside.  If you take it too seriously, it breaks down.  But accept it for what it is and it is magnificent.  And I think Jack wants you to accept it for what it is.

the first of three Spielberg films to hold the all-time box office record: Jaws (1975)

Jaws

  • Director:  Steven Spielberg
  • Writer:  Peter Benchley  /  Carl Gottlieb  (from the novel by Benchley)
  • Producer:  Richard D. Zanuck  /  David Brown
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Stars:  Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Editing, Original Score, Sound
  • Oscar Points:  190
  • Length:  124 min
  • Genre:  Horror
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $260.00 mil  (#1  –  1975;  #1 all-time upon initial release)
  • Release Date:  20 June 1975
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #65  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  445

The Film:  For a long time I put off watching this film.  I can’t remember when I finally did see it.  My late teens, maybe?  As a kid, I used to have nightmares in response to films and at first my parents, and then later, I, knew that this film was not one for me to be watching, at least not until a good night’s sleep was no longer an issue.  So by the time I saw it I had already seen most of Spielberg’s films, I was already making lists of the best films I had ever seen.  I was no longer a kid to be scared by cheap thrills.

I was riveted.  Here was a horror film – never my favorite genre – that clearly rose above everything else in the genre.  Look at the opening scene – so perfectly lit against the dusk – with the underwater menace lurking closer.  We know it is there because we’ve already been down there.  The cinematography in this film is so good because it always lets you know of the menace lurking out there.  We don’t need gratuitous shots of the shark.  The foreboding doom is enough, especially when it is well prepared for us by one of the most menacing scores ever put on film.  John Williams and Steven Spielberg had already worked together on Sugarland Express, but the work here clearly established both of them at the top of their games.  If Close Encounters, Raiders, E.T. and Schindler’s List would establish Spielberg as one of the world’s greatest directors, then certainly the Williams score in all of those films was one the reasons for their success.  The fact that the mechanical shark didn’t work for such a large part of the shoot was instrumental for Spielberg and Williams.  For while it allowed Spielberg to build the suspense until that great moment where the shark leaps out of the water, scaring the hell out of Roy Scheider, it also allowed Williams’ score to seem that much more menacing.  Who the hell knows what is under there?  With that score pulsing over the scene where the shark pulls the pier apart and then, even more frighteningly, comes back towards shore, we are left to our own imagination of what it could be.  What makes this film work so well is that whatever the shark might look like in the end, it can never match what we thinking during those early scenes.

As I pointed out here, Jaws is a terrible book.  But it is a wonderful film – suspenseful, dramatic, funny, terrifying all at the same time.  Certainly anyone who has ever seen it remembers the opening scene and you need not have ever seen it to know the famous scene where Scheider backs away and so perfectly mutters “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”  It works as a great one-liner, but he is most definitely serious, pleading with him “We’re gonna a bigger boat, right?”  But most people who love the film think of the nighttime scene where the three men are drinking and Quint and Hooper compare scars.  The scene, very funny at first, then evolves into quiet and somber as Quint relays his memories at sea after the sinking of the Indianapolis.  In the middle of all the death and terror comes this nice quiet scene before the morning’s carnage.

Whether for good or ill, Jaws gets much of the credit and blame for beginning the era of the summer blockbuster.  It opened wider than most films usually did, crushed everyone else at the summer box office and made the movies a summertime destination.  But, much like the worthless sequels to follow, many of the tentpole films to follow in the last 35 years failed to deliver on the promise of JawsJaws is an incredible film, made by a first-rate director, with brilliant editing, cinematography and music.  It is smart and funny and interesting and worth seeing over and over again and the special effects are something which only add to the film – not the reason to see the film itself.  In years to come, most of the summer blockbusters will only exist in box office lists.  Jaws will endure.

Sidney Lumet finally nails that Best Picture nomination with Dog Day Afternoon

Dog Day Afternoon

  • Director:  Sidney Lumet
  • Writer:  Frank Pierson  (inspired by an article by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore)
  • Producer:  Martin Bregman  /  Martin Elfand
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Al Pacino, John Cazale, Charles Durning, Chris Sarandon
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Pacino), Supporting Actor (Sarandon), Editing
  • Oscar Points:  265
  • Length:  125 min
  • Genre:  Crime  (Heist)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $46.66 mil  (#5  –  1975)
  • Release Date:  21 September 1975
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #94  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Pacino), Supporting Actor (Cazale), Editing, Cinematography, Sound
  • Nighthawk Points:  270

The Film:  So much has been written about film-making in the seventies, about Coppola, Friedkin, Scorsese, Altman, Bogdanovich, about an era of freedom that produced a new Golden Age of American Cinema.  Of course, like so much of that kind of thing when it is written, it both idolizes a type of film, but also takes a specific direction for its worship.  Books like Easy Riders, Raging Bulls talk so much about the directors and the freedom they were allowed during this decade.  But think about this for a minute.  During the early period of the seventies, the type so revered by the followers of the auteur theory, we also had an influx of perhaps the greatest group of actors in American film history.  Suddenly, aside from the ascendancy of Jack Nicholson to the top of the heap with five nominations in seven years, culminating in his brilliant Oscar win in 1975, we also have the arrival, hard-core of the method actors.  Suddenly, we had Oscar-winning or nominated performances from De Niro, Hoffman, Pacino and for good measure, the godfather of method acting, Brando, and even the teacher who gave it to all of them: Lee Strasberg.

From 1972 to 1975, Al Pacino received four consecutive Oscar nominations (sadly, winning none of them).  He is the only male actor aside from Brando to ever do this and it is possible that Dog Day Afternoon is the best of all those performances.  Poor Sonny, the man robbing a bank in Brooklyn in broad daylight in order to pay for his lover’s gender reallignment surgery has none of the confidence of Michael Corleone or Serpico.  He has desperation in every syllable he utters.  The whole process of going through this everyday drove Pacino away from making films for several years (though when he returned, he did so with And Justice For All, which would earn him yet another Oscar nomination).  And in one sense, there is a drawback to Pacino’s performance.  Much like Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight, it is so incredible, so pitch perfect in every second that you forget how great everyone else in the cast is.  We have an Oscar nominated performance by Chris Sarandon as Leon, the poor man who just wants to be a woman but doesn’t feel that a bank has to be robbed for him to do that; he might even be the weakest of the supporting performances.  There is also Charles Durning as the poor police sergeant who is just trying to get through this ridiculous robbery with all the hostages alive.  And of course, there is the always brilliant John Cazale, who would never end up earning an Oscar nomination but is vividly remembered by anyone who has ever seen any of his five films.

Sidney Lumet has, for a long time, been one of the best directors around, but doesn’t have the cult following or the Oscars to back it up.  In a stretch in the seventies, when people kept talking about Altman he directed Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and Equus.  He not only became the first director in the history of the DGA to earn three straight nominations (even though he failed to earn Oscar nominations for Picture or Director for the first two), but with Network became the first to earn four straight and the first to reach 7 DGA nominations (unfortunately, without ever winning).  The script is first-rate, the acting is beyond brilliant, but the tension, the feeling that you can cut through with a knife, ending with that final quick moment?  Well, that is pure Lumet.

Kubrick's masterpiece of cold detachment: Barry Lyndon (1975)

Barry Lyndon

  • Director:  Stanley Kubrick
  • Writer:  Stanely Kubrick  (based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackerey)
  • Producer:  Stanley Kubrick
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Leon Vitali
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Adapted From Other Material, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Scoring: Original Song Score And/Or Adaptation
  • Oscar Points:  285
  • Length:  184 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $20.00 mil
  • Release Date:  18 December 1975
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #8  (year)  /  #196  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actress (Berenson), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  300

The Film:  It took me a long time to fully appreciate this film.  When I first saw it, I knew it had technical brilliance.  It was well made, with phenomenal cinematography and incredible art direction and costumes.  But something about it turned me off.  It was so cold, so distant and the performance by Ryan O’Neal in the central role was so detached, so withdrawn that I couldn’t make any connection to the film.  Even reading the book didn’t help.

But this time, well this time I was able to understand it.  It’s all deliberate.  This is exactly who Barry is – in fact, no one could have played it better than O’Neal.  He’s not a bad actor, but he’s not a particularly good actor either.  His level of talent is exactly right for the kind of cold detachment you would expect from a social climber like Barry.  Born Redmond Barry, falling in love with a rich cousin, he is driven away by a well thought-out scheme by her family and ends up first in the British Army, then the Prussian.  He fights not because he cares at all (in fact, perhaps the only moments where he really cares in the film are when his mentor dies in battle and when his son dies from a fall from a horse).  But he ends up moving up enough to marry the rich Baroness Lyndon and finally achieve the level of society he has been aiming for.  But there is the matter of a stepson, one whom he hates and who hates him with even greater ferocity (it’s hard for Barry to muster up enough emotion to hate).  But when the son returns from time away demanding satisfaction from an emotionally crippled Barry mourning the loss of his son, we finally see Barry do the right thing for once in his life and it ends up costing him nearly everything.  The anti-hero finally acts nobly and is punished for it.

It’s such a well-made film, but you have to be able to understand it.  You will have to see that no one is particularly likable, that there is nothing good to be found here, that high society and low alike act as low as they can.  But it is so amazingly beautiful, with wonderful period music, scenes shot entirely by candlelight, incredible costumes, brilliant direction.  In some ways it stands up as the epitome of Kubrick’s career – no one to identify with, just cold detachment while looking at the world.  And sometimes that is exactly how the world must be looked at in order to survive it.

Nashville. Beloved by critics. By me, eh, not so much.

Nashville

  • Director:  Robert Altman
  • Writer:  Joan Tewkesbury
  • Producer:  Robert Altman
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Michael Murphy, Henry Gibson, Lily Tomlin, Ned Beatty, Ronee Blakely, Keith Carradine, Karen Black
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Supporting Actress (Tomlin), Supporting Actress (Blakely), Original Song (“I’m Easy”)
  • Oscar Points:  175
  • Length:  159 min
  • Genre:  Musical
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $9.98 mil
  • Release Date:  11 June 1975
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #44  (year)  /  #402  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Supporting Actress (Tomlin), Supporting Actress (Blakely), Original Song (“I’m Easy), Original Song (“200 Years”)
  • Nighthawk Points:  90

The Film:  In his Great Movies review of Nashville, Roger Ebert writes the following: ” ‘What is this story about’ I wrote.  The film may be great because you can’t really answer the question.”  In his original review of the film, he wrote “Altman’s storytelling is so clear in his own mind, his mastery of this complex wealth of material is so complete, that we’re never for a moment confused or even curious.”  I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with him on both of these points.

When I first made my list ranking all of the Best Picture nominees, this was the film I thought I would get the most grief about.  Oddly enough, no one mentioned Nashville – they were all too wound up about how low I rated The Crowd.  Maybe they just didn’t notice it.  Or maybe the views of Ebert and Pauline Kael on this film no longer hold sway.  I find myself arguing with film critics, especially those who were in the business when the film was first released in 1975, but not with people I know who have seen the film.

I find the film to really be kind of a mess and boring for long stretches.  There are a lot of characters, but there is in fact considerable confusion and if there is a lack of curiosity it’s because I found myself not caring about a lot of them.  Some of them are more memorable, partially because they are well acted (Tomlin, Blakely, Carradine, Gibson).  But others are either not memorable, not interesting, or not particularly good.  Their stories end up kind of repetitive, kind of irritating.  If there is a lack of curiosity it is because I couldn’t get interested enough in the film as a whole to care about the individual characters.

Altman has long been known as an improviser.  But the films that I think are his best (M*A*S*H, The Player, Gosford Park) are those which have a more solid script to guide the process.  Many of the more improvisational films like this or Pret-a-Porter end up just as a formless mess.  It’s interesting as a glimpse of the city of Nashville and the life of the people there and their intersection with country music, but as a film, it felt like it meandered too much.  Ebert comments that it in the scene with Carradine and Tomlin in the hotel room, he essentially creates a short story.  Except, this would have been better as a collection of short stories.  When presented with actual short stories to film, Altman did a much better job (Short Cuts).

Then I came to the ending.  There are many things I could write about it.  The first is to point out that Altman was asked about the ending after John Lennon was shot, asking how he felt after predicting such an event.  Altman, irritated at the notion that his film could have inspired such a tragedy, countered “Why didn’t anyone listen to it?”  And then, of course, I re-watched this film just after the horrible events in Tucson in January, 2011.  Does it lend a greater aura of tragedy given current events?  Or does it fail to live up to the situation.  Certainly the actions of Henry Gibson are interesting in light of his character throughout the film and his insistence that we must keep singing and keep going is reminiscent of the patriotism inspired by 9/11.  But I’ve seen a person die right in front of me, I know what that feels like and the ending feels forced to me.

Altman was a great director and this film is well-directed.  It certainly has good acting throughout, working as a true ensemble, the songs are fairly good (the most interesting being the Oscar winning “I’m Easy” and the patriotic “200 Years” that opens the film).  But the script is such a mess that it feels like the film doesn’t work as a whole.  The reaction of the critics reminds of so many film-goers who worship at the altar of Godard.  I say that it’s not enough to be new and interesting.  It still has to function.

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