One of the quieter moments between Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter (1978)

The 51st annual Academy Awards, for the film year 1978.  The nominations were announced on February 20, 1979 and the awards were held on April 9, 1979.

Best Picture:  The Deer Hunter

  • Midnight Express
  • Heaven Can Wait
  • Coming Home
  • An Unmarried Woman

Most Surprising Omission:  Interiors

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Autumn Sonata

Best Eligible English-Language Film Not Nominated:  Interiors

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #41

The Race: For a surprise, some of the films aimed towards the Oscars opened early in the year.  Coming Home, a film about a love triangle between a Vietnam Vet, a Captain over in the war and the Captain’s wife, had been groomed by Jane Fonda and opened to strong reviews in February.  The film opened to strong reviews, though the original writer, Nancy Dowd, had by then disowned the results, which later writers had done without her input, adding the love story that Fonda wanted in the film.  Soon after that was Paul Mazursky’s new film – An Unmarried Woman.  Mazursky had gotten strong reviews for years (and this was no exception), but had yet to break into the Best Picture race.

The big hits of the summer were Grease and Animal House, but also Warren Beatty’s directorial debut (with Buck Henry) – Heaven Can Wait, a remake of the 1941 Best Picture nominee Here Comes Mr. Jordan.  It scored great reviews and great box office, becoming one of the biggest hits of the year.  Woody Allen wasn’t getting big box office, but his new drama, Interiors, an Ingmar Bergman type female-oriented drama, was getting good reviews, beaten only by the reviews for Bergman’s new film, Autumn Sonata – which starred Ingrid Bergman in a Swedish role for the first time in 40 years.

With the fall, came a trip of bleak, dark films – Midnight Express, about an American’s brutal experiences in Turkish prison, Days of Heaven, Terence Malick’s second film, and The Deer Hunter, a three hour long magnum opus about Vietnam.

Allan Carr, who had been hired by Universal to plan the marketing of The Deer Hunter, after seeing it decided to dump it from a fall release date.  Instead, he opened it for a week at Christmas in Westwood and Manhattan.  It became the talk of Manhattan, quickly winning the New York Film Critics and all the showings in Westwood were sold out.  According to Oscar Dearest, Universal counted 2400 of the 3500 eligible Academy voters having seen it during that stretch.  Carr then held a special screening for Steven Spielberg and Vincente Minnelli to try to get attention from both older and younger directors and hoped they would spread the word.

There was a new thing in the mix as well – cable television.  The Z channel in L.A. had broadcast Annie Hall the year before between the nominations and the awards.  This time it had a lot of contenders lined up – Midnight Express, Coming Home, Heaven Can Wait, Interiors and An Unmarried Woman.

The plan for The Deer Hunter to start winning all the awards with the late release didn’t quite pan out.  None of the groups agreed, with the LA Film Critics picking Coming Home, the National Board of Review going with Days of Heaven and the National Society of Film Critics going back to Europe, picking Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, the official Foreign Film submission to the Academy from France.  Then came the Golden Globes, where Midnight Express and Heaven Can Wait took the two Best Picture prizes while The Deer Hunter was forced to live with just Best Director.

The directors seemed to be the big hope for The Deer Hunter.  The screening for Spielberg and Minnelli seemed to work – coming right before the DGA, The Deer Hunter managed to win.  But it lost again at the Writers Guild to Coming Home, with Midnight Express and Heaven Can Wait picking up wins as well.

The Results: The Deer Hunter and Heaven Can Wait were tied with 9 nominations each.  But the big competitor with The Deer HunterComing Home, was competing against it in seven categories: Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Director, Original Screenplay and Editing.  Midnight Express was also in the mix with 6 nominations, including Director and Adapted Screenplay.  Woody Allen was once again in the Best Director and Best Original Screenplay race (where he would be competing against Bergman himself), but this time his film was not in the running.  Instead, An Unmarried Woman, with just three nominations, the fewest in four years, had managed to get the final Best Picture slot.

But then things started to get ugly.  Julie Christie reported to Jane Fonda that the screening of The Deer Hunter at the Berlin Film Festival had people screaming.  In spite of not having seen the film, Fonda went on the offense, decrying its portrayal of the Viet Cong as subhuman and flat out saying “I hope it doesn’t win.”  In spite of Fonda’s hopes, The Deer Hunter started strong, winning the first award of the night (Supporting Actor), and was ahead 4 to 1 before Coming Home finally won both lead acting awards.  But the night ended with John Wayne mispronouncing several names and declaring The Deer Hunter the winner.  In the end, The Deer Hunter beat Coming Home in the head to head battle 4 to 2.  But none of it fazed Fonda, who declared after the ceremony “Ours was the best picture.”

The poster of De Niro with the gun to his head was just too much to use.

The Deer Hunter

  • Director:  Michael Cimino
  • Writer:  Michael Cimino  /  Deric Washburn  /  Louis Garfinkle  /  Quinn K. Redeker
  • Producer:  Barry Spikings  /  Michael Deeley  /  Michael Cimino  /  John Peverall
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Stars:  Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, Meryl Streep, John Cazale
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actor (De Niro), Supporting Actor (Walken), Supporting Actress (Streep), Editing, Cinematography, Sound
  • Oscar Points:  470
  • Length:  182 min
  • Genre:  War  (Vietnam)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $48.97 mil  (#7  –  1978)
  • Release Date:   8 December 1978
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #133  (nominees)  /  #36  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (De Niro), Supporting Actor (Walken), Supporting Actress (Streep), Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  470

The Film:  “A lot of people went and a lot of people never came back.  And a lot who came back weren’t the same anymore.”  That’s Bruce Springsteen, speaking about Vietnam, and it seems as fitting as anything else in discussing The Deer Hunter.  One one level, that’s exactly what this film is about: that a lot of people never came back and a lot who come back weren’t the same anymore.  Three men go to Vietnam.  One of them, Steven, is paralyzed over there and he is not the same anymore.  Then there is Michael, who comes back, whole in body, wounded in spirit.  Is he the same anymore?  He was so internalized before and he is so now – a leader of men before and after, that it is difficult to tell.  Part of that is about the script, and part of that is the masterful performance from Robert De Niro.  And then there is Nick.  Nick doesn’t come back.  That’s difficult for Michael, of course, because in a playground at night, just before they left, Nick made Michael promise him that he would not leave him over there, no matter what.  But, even if Nick had come back, he had been scarred so much by his experiences that he still would never have really been back.  There is even Linda, the woman who loves both Nick and Michael.  She is not the same for them having gone.

All of this is contained in a three hour film that is roughly divided into three acts – the first one being Steven’s marriage and a deer hunting trip, the second one being the experience in Vietnam, and the third one, focusing on Michael, being the return home and the eventual decision to bring Nick back.  The film seems to have gotten its framing concept from The Godfather – begin with a long marriage, let the characters develop and then carry them across time.  But it doesn’t work as well, partially because Cimino does not have the story-telling gifts that Coppola has and partially because these characters are not as well fleshed-out.  The opening scenes just seem to take too long and we are already starting to feel tired long before we get to Vietnam and see the brutal experiences that these men undergo.

And that gets one of the key things about the film.  The film isn’t really about Vietnam.  Vietnam just provides a useful frame for exploring what happens to these men.  In its brutal depiction of the Vietnam experience – based more on fanciful ideas of the horror of war rather than any realistic depiction of the American experience in Vietnam, we are able to see how these men are wounded – far more in mind than body.  We understand that Michael is the one who is able to return whole, the hero, the man in uniform, because he is the strongest – not in sheer physical prowess but in mind and spirit.  He bends, but he does not break and the others are not able to follow.

The Deer Hunter has a great score, is well shot, has absolutely excellent acting – not just De Niro, who deserved the Oscar – and Walken and Streep who are my second place finishers, and not just Cazale, who is always masterful, but in every role.  All of the characters seem real because they do such a wonderful job together.  But there are other aspects of the film that don’t work as well.  It somehow won an Oscar for editing when it is far too long and drags for considerable portions.  The script is good, but not great.  It is a great film, and in the end, the best of a rather weak year – a year that doesn’t really have a true Oscar level film.

Oliver Stone wins an Oscar for writing Midnight Express years before he becomes a star director

Midnight Express

  • Director:  Alan Parker
  • Writer:  Oliver Stone  (from the book by Billy Hayes)
  • Producer:  Alan Marshall  /  David Puttnam
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Brad Davis, John Hurt, Randy Quaid
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Supporting Actor (Hurt), Editing, Original Score
  • Oscar Points:  280
  • Length:  121 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Prison)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $35.00 mil
  • Release Date:   6 October 1978
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #149  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Hurt), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound
  • Nighthawk Points:  325

The Film:  Years later, both Billy Hayes and Oliver Stone would make apologies to the Turkish people for the barbaric way in which their country is portrayed in this film.  They both admitted that the film takes some liberties with what happened to Hayes in his imprisonment in Turkey for several years over drug charges.  Hayes, very unwisely, tried to smuggle some hash back to his friends in the States at a time when the world had been dealing with terrorist attacks on airplanes.  The Turkish authorities decided to make an example out of him and he found himself in a fairly brutal Turkish prison.  That the facts of what happened to Hayes is not precisely portrayed accurately in this film aren’t really the issue.  Does the film work, but as a social message and as a work of dramatic art?  Absolutely.  And that is what a film is required to do.  In 1977, Julia, which claimed to be true, never felt true.  In this film, we know which aspects of the film are different from the actual facts of the case, but it always feel true.  It works as a film.

The film begins with Hayes’ attempt to get on a plane, clearly under stress.  He is caught and, though he tries to lead authorities to the man who sold him the drugs, he also tries to make a run for it.  His sentence is passed down and he will spend the next four years in prison.  What follows are scenes of brutal prison conditions as awful as anything ever seen on film.  Hayes, played solidly by Brad Davis, tries to keep himself going.  But then he reaches the point where he finds out that an example has been made and his case has been re-tried as “intent to sell” rather than mere possession and he finds himself, less than two months from release, looking 30 years in the eye.  This sends him over the edge and what we have seen before is nothing like what is to come afterwords.

It is a difficult film to watch, as difficult in many ways as The Deer Hunter.  In fact, I can’t think of any other year in which I would prefer to never again watch my top two films of the year.  They clearly work as art – even though neither one of them could possibly qualify as entertainment.  It is well crafted, with solid cinematography, art direction (the prisons seem like something out of a past age), music (Giorgio Moroder’s synthesized score would win the Oscar and actually become a dance sensation – set over the love scene in the film between Billy and another prisoner) and well edited, never letting things slow down.  It is also well acted, most especially from John Hurt, as a man who has learned how to exist in the prison for a long time.  It is the best film from one of the Top 100 Directors.  But I’m glad I won’t ever need to watch it again.

The poster is a reminder that the title is much better than the original.

Heaven Can Wait

  • Director:  Warren Beatty /  Buck Henry
  • Writer:  Warren Beatty  /  Elaine May  (from the play by Harry Segall)
  • Producer:  Warren Beatty
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Charles Grodin, Dyan Cannon, Jack Warden, James Mason, Buck Henry
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Actor (Beatty), Supporting Actor (Grodin), Supporting Actress (Cannon), Cinematography, Original Score, Art Direction
  • Oscar Points:  320
  • Length:  101 min
  • Genre:  Comedy  (Romantic)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $81.64 mil  (#6  –  1978)
  • Release Date:   28 June 1978
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #7  (year)  /  #212  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Beatty), Supporting Actress (Cannon), Editing, Art Direction
  • Nighthawk Points:  150

The Film:  It seems like forever that people have looked back at films and said “They don’t make films like that anymore.”  Well, if Beatty was saying that, he was also asking himself, why the hell not?  He had as much charm and natural talent as anybody from the Studio Era.  Hell, perhaps he could outdo all of them.  So he didn’t just settle for re-making an old classic – Here Comes Mr. Jordan, a Best Picture nominee from 1941; instead he refashioned it to something that he could star in (originally he intended it for Muhammed Ali, but when he wasn’t available changed the sport of the main character from boxing to football because Beatty couldn’t box but he could play football), co-wrote it with Elaine May, co-directed it with Buck Henry and produced it.  The end result was that Beatty was the first person since Orson Welles in 1941 to be nominated for all four categories in the same year.

That was the end result from the Academy (9 nominations overall).  But what is the end result of the film?  A genuine great film, better than the original.  First, the casting is so much better.  While James Mason could never hope to match up Claude Rains, he is still a great Mr. Jordan and everyone else is an improvement.  We not only have a pitch perfect performance from Beatty (in many ways, his confidence and sincerity while seeming like a complete lunatic to everyone around him is the precursor to his performance as Bugsy), but we have possibly the best work of Charles Grodin’s and Dyan Cannon’s careers.  We have magnificent supporting work from Jack Warden, a likable romantic partner for Beatty in Julie Christie (so much different than her sexed up performance opposite him in Shampoo) and Buck Henry absolutely perfect as the bumbling angel who messes up his first assignment (Henry, like Edward Everett Horton before him, seems born to play this kind of role).

Part of what makes the film work so well is Beatty’s single-mindedness about getting to the Super Bowl (one of those eerie coincidences, in that the film depicts the Rams and Steelers in the Super Bowl which would actually happen 18 months after the movie debuted) and the fact that he is a genuinely decent guy.  The single-mindedness adds considerably to the comedy (the way he keeps rejecting people just before they die) while his decency is the anchor of the film.  He might be intrigued by Christie’s beauty, but it is her cause that makes him go forth with a plan of action and his genuine sorrow at the person whose body he ends up with show what a good guy he is.  And we all want to root for the good guy.  Especially in the Super Bowl.

Jane Fonda wins her second Oscar and Jon Voight won his only - but Bergman and De Niro should have won

Coming Home

  • Director:  Hal Ashby
  • Writer:  Waldo Salt  /  Robert C. Jones
  • Producer:  Jerome Hellman
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Bruce Dern, Penelope Milford
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actor (Voight), Actress (Fonda), Supporting Actor (Dern), Supporting Actress (Milford), Editing
  • Oscar Points:  400
  • Length:  127 min
  • Genre:  Drama (Social)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $32.65 mil
  • Release Date:   15 February 1978
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #10  (year)  /  #261  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Voight), Actress (Fonda), Supporting Actor (Dern), Supporting Actress (Milford)
  • Nighthawk Points:  130

The Film:  Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is summed up in looking at the soundtrack.  The soundtrack is glorious – filled with masterful songs from the late sixties, evoking memories for those who lived through those days and wonder in those who didn’t.  But they don’t connect to anything.  There is no moment like you would find in a Scorsese film where the song perfectly synchs up with what is going on in the film.  It’s just a greatest hits soundtrack for the times.  It’s not necessarily evoking the era properly.

The same goes with the film.  We have some excellent performances in this film – it’s rare when a film manages to secure nominations in all of the categories and nice that it earns them all (even if I don’t agree with either of the wins).  But the film itself can’t overcome its problems.  Like The Deer Hunter, it purports to be about the Vietnam War – to make a statement about the war through a fictional lens and comment on those whose experiences changed them.  But, like The Deer Hunter, it is less about the war than it is about itself.  On one level, it is about Sally, the wife of a Captain off in Vietnam who volunteers at the local V.A. hospital.  Through her interactions with Luke, a paralyzed Vietnam vet, she comes to learn how his experiences in the war have made him bitter, not only towards the war which wounded him and the military which mislead him, but also at the world which allowed this to happen.  She slowly has her eyes opened to the real cost of the war, the one which her husband is fighting in.

If that were it, it would be one thing.  But then, of course, she falls in love with Luke and they begin an affair, one which they know will be a problem once her husband returns from the war.  That Fonda and Voight handle all of these scenes so well (especially in an opening scene where real paralyzed vets are playing pool – Voight was supposed to have lines in that scene but was so overwhelmed by the emotions that he sat in silence and his eyes say far more than any lines could have) is a tribute to their skill.  Dern, as the Captain, and Penelope Milford as the young friend of Sally’s who she is staying with, are also very good.  But the romance aspect of the story actually undermines the main social thrust.  It no longer becomes a question of feelings about the war – now it has become personalized in her love for these two very different men.

All of this moves towards a conclusion that has always seemed false to me.  Is it meant to be a happy ending?  Is love prevailing in this story?  Or is this just one more example of the human cost of Vietnam?  I love ambiguity in film endings, but only if they work in concert with the rest of the film.  So much of a film is tied up with the ending and this one just doesn’t feel right.

She might do all of those things, but that does not make her film particularly interesting.

An Unmarried Woman

  • Director:  Paul Mazursky
  • Writer:  Paul Mazursky
  • Producer:  Paul Mazursky  /  Tony Ray
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Jill Clayburgh, Alan Bates, Michael Murphy
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actress (Clayburgh)
  • Oscar Points:  125
  • Length:  124 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Romance)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $24.00 mil
  • Release Date:   5 March 1978
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #34  (year)  /  #364  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Clayburgh)
  • Nighthawk Points:  35

The Film:  This is an odd mix of two different films.  In one of them, a rather self-centered man decides that he has fallen in love with another woman and wants a divorce.  There is a rather interesting scene where he breaks down crying on the street and explains it to his wife.  We’ve been watching the couple through the opening scenes of the film and, only because of the title of the film and any knowledge of the film, are we not surprised.  It is a well done scene – the strong, honest response of Jill Clayburgh as the cuckolded wife and the strange reaction from her husband, played so well by Michael Murphy, who doesn’t understand why his wife isn’t happy for his decision.  Suddenly, this well-to-do couple with a teenage daughter is facing a massive rupture in their lives.  The way this scene plays out speaks to the honesty of each of those two actors and the potential for this film.

But what follows is a fairly standard film.  From the title, you would think this is a great liberation film about the freedom to be unmarried.  But what really follows is a fairly conventional romance when Clayburgh eventually falls for an artist who has pieces in the studio where she works.  The very good performance from Clayburgh is completely undermined by the rather triteness of a fairly standard script.  This is the same Paul Mazursky who made Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice as well as Harry and Tonto, but none of his originality seems to be here.

I suppose there are people who will see this film for more than what I see it.  I see rich characters (living in a fine New York City apartment with a view) who go around with their friends and whine a lot when things in their life take a massive shift, then follow the standard script of a conventional ending.  I admire the work of both Clayburgh and Murphy, but eventually see the whole thing as a wasted chance to do something more.  To do anything.