A touching moment for father and son in Kramer vs. Kramer.

The 52nd annual Academy Awards, for the film year 1979.  The nominations were announced on February 24, 1980 and the awards were held on April 14, 1980.

Best Picture:  Kramer vs. Kramer

  • Apocalypse Now
  • All That Jazz
  • Breaking Away
  • Norma Rae

Most Surprising Omission: Manhattan

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Alien

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

The Race: Having finally ditched her Flying Nun reputation with her Emmy award winning performance as Sybil, Sally Field wanted to prove herself in films outside of Smokey and the Bandit.  She pulled it off with Norma Rae, with some solid box office and the bulk of the mentions in the good reviews.  But suddenly it was Jane Fonda, fresh off her Oscar, taking the notices again.  Her new drama, The China Syndrome, not only earned strong reviews but also garnered a lot of extra attention when Three Mile Island had their leak just a few weeks later.  But both films combined didn’t seem to get the critical attention that Woody Allen’s new film Manhattan did.

But the big film news was coming out of Cannes where Francis Ford Coppola did the unprecedented move of showing his new film, Apocalypse Now, as a work in progress.  The result was a standing ovation and a win of the Golden Palm.  By the time the film opened in August, it was all anyone could talk about.  It quickly became one of the biggest hits of the year – financially and critically.  And it looked like Coppola, for the third time in the decade, might be headed for a face-off with Bob Fosse.  Fosse’s autobiographical film, All That Jazz, didn’t almost kill him like Coppola’s did – instead it dealt with the 1975 heart attack that almost killed him.  It was competing at Christmas with a couple of very different films – Hal Ashby’s adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There with Peter Sellers in the lead role and Kramer vs. KramerKramer had Dustin Hoffman opposite Meryl Streep – who, since The Deer Hunter had come out at the end of 1978 had also had high profile roles in Manhattan and The Seduction of Joe Tynan and had quickly emerged as a star.

Kramer jumped out to the early lead when the LA Film Critics kicked off the awards rally on December 15.  It was still four days before the film even opened, but its awards tally included Picture, Director, Supporting Actress and Screenplay.  The tally increased on its opening day when the New York Film Critics gave it Picture, Actor and Supporting Actress.  The National Board of Review had Kramer in their Top 10, but their Best Picture was Manhattan.  The final critics group, the National Society of Film Critics gave their Best Picture to Breaking Away, a small, highly praised summer film about four friends in Indiana, but Kramer took home Director, Actor and Supporting Actress.

Kramer vs. Kramer was the big favorite in the Golden Globes with 7 nominations, including Picture, Director and Screenplay.  Also up for all three were Being There, The China Syndrome and Breaking Away with Apocalypse Now getting Picture and Director nominations.  Manhattan and Norma Rae were in with Picture nominations while All That Jazz had to make do with just a Best Actor (Comedy) nomination.  The awards themselves continued the momentum with Kramer winning four awards though Apocalypse Now took home Director.  Breaking Away continued its awards list by winning Picture (Comedy).

The Directors Guild didn’t change much with Kramer, Apocalypse, Manhattan, Breaking Away and China Syndrome the five nominees (and Kramer the winner).  The writers guild only confirmed the front-runners, with wins for Kramer, China Syndrome and Breaking Away and nominations for Manhattan, Apocalypse Now and Norma Rae. The latter film looked like in might still be in the spoiler position in the race, along with Being There (which had won the fourth WGA award), but the front-runners looked set.

The Results: As it turned out, all was not set.  Kramer vs. Kramer was in the lead with 9 nominations as expected.  But tied for the lead was All That Jazz – the first film in five years to get nominated at the Academy without either a Globe or DGA nomination.  In fact, the usual good predictor, the DGA, for the first time in 14 years had two films that failed to earn either Picture or Director nominations at the Academy.  Instead of The China Syndrome or Manhattan joining Apocalypse Now and Breaking Away, it was Norma Rae that had earned the final spot.

On the big night, All That Jazz took home twice as many Oscars (4) as it had earned nominations from all the precursors (2 – Actor from the Globes, Editing from ACE).  And while every BP nom won at least one Oscar for the first time in four years, it was Kramer vs. Kramer that was the big winner.  Though it became the third Best Picture winner in four years to not win any technical Oscars, it still took home five awards – Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor and Actress.

first Oscars for two of acting's best: Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep

Kramer vs. Kramer

  • Director:  Robert Benton
  • Writer:  Robert Benton  (from the novel by Avery Corman)
  • Producer:  Stanley R. Jaffe
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander, Justin Henry
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium, Actor (Hoffman), Supporting Actor (Henry), Supporting Actress (Streep), Supporting Actress (Alexander), Editing, Cinematography
  • Oscar Points:  510
  • Length:  105 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $106.26 mil
  • Release Date:   19 December 1979
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #7  (year)  /  #155  (nominees)  /  #41  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Hoffman), Supporting Actress (Streep), Supporting Actress (Alexander)
  • Nighthawk Points:  165

The Film:  This was one of the first films I watched after becoming seriously interested in film.  I recognized it as a great film – well written, well made, thoughtful, interesting, very well acted.  I taped it at the same time that I watched it or soon thereafter, but have not watched it in the 22 years since.  Why?  Perhaps because it was not as great as I once thought?  I certainly had begun to think that before watching it again and discovering that no – it was as great as I first thought and though I do not think it the best film of the year, it is certainly one of them.  So why haven’t I watched it?  Perhaps because it is of a genre – family drama – that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to watching over and over again.  Perhaps because my parents never had the greatest marriage and watching a film that begins with a dead marriage wasn’t one I wanted to watch again.  But now, returning to it, as a parent, I find it even harder to watch.

But I also find it easier to understand.  I can understand both sides of this issue – how both parents have dramatically failed in their marriage and as parents and by the end of the film, they have made a journey and it would seem, come out the other end as better people.  The first time I saw it, even as a teenager, I was appalled at the way that Joanna Kramer, played so magnificently by Meryl Streep in a year where she seemed to be in everything (she swept the Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe and all the existing critics groups for her multiple triumphs of Kramer, Manhattan and The Seduction of Joe Tynan – something which had never been done before and has never been done since) felt that she could walk away and leave her child in the middle of the night.  Now it tears at me even more.  But I can also understand her feeling of needing to leave – of feeling inadequate as a parent and her frustration at a partner who is never there.  “I’m sorry I was late but I was busy making a living.” Hoffman replies, but that no longer works as an excuse – we are past the days of having a family as a form of status.  Parenthood is a partnership and he just isn’t doing his part.

What happens of course, is that she gives up her part all together and makes him try to do all of it.  His attempts to succeed and the way he learns how much he loves his son build the emotional arc of the first half of the film.  Indeed, there are few scenes in all of film that make me as emotional as the scene where his son falls and he picks him up and races down the street, dodging cars to get him to the emergency room.  That is an honest emotion and one I can identify with.

But then comes the emotional arc of the second half of the film – Joanna’s return and desire to be with her son.  I lucked out in that my parents own divorce didn’t come until I was an adult, but I have witnessed this kind of ugliness among friends and relatives.  I can understand that Ted desperately wants to keep his son, but not at the cost of forcing young Billy to be up there on the stand and try to make a choice.  I can even understand the loss that Joanna has felt after leaving her son behind and how she has come to realize what is missing from her life.

It works.  That is the fact of it.  It is an involving, emotional drama, filled with real life situations.  It is extremely well-written (several of the scenes were actually improvised), it is well constructed, and of course, it is phenomenally acted – not just from Hoffman and Streep, but also from Jane Alexander as the very understanding neighbor and even by Justin Henry.  Perhaps that was the best surprise of watching the film again.  So many child actors, especially boys, are so awful, but he really is quite good in all of his scenes – especially the scene where he asks a co-worker of Ted’s if she likes fried chicken.  That scene, unbelievably funny, seems like exactly what would happen in that circumstance.  So does much of the film, for that matter, and perhaps that is the key to its success.

one of the best films of the seventies, which inspired one of the best documentaries of the nineties

Apocalypse Now

  • Director:  Francis Ford Coppola
  • Writer:  Francis Ford Coppola  /  John Milius  /  Michael Herr  (from the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad)
  • Producer:  Francis Ford Coppola  /  Fred Roos  /  Gray Frederickson  /  Tom Sternberg
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Marlon Brando
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium, Supporting Actor (Duvall), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction
  • Oscar Points:  300
  • Length:  153 min
  • Genre:  War  (Vietnam)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $78.78 mil
  • Release Date:   15 August 1979
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #64  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Duvall), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  340

The Film:  I wavered back and forth over this for a long time.  Was it the best film of the year?  In the end, I stuck with the decision I had made a number of years ago – it was, in fact, the second best film of the year.  There were certainly factors weighing on me.  There are the Ebert reviews, the number of lists which place it at the top, not only of the year, but the decade, and the sheer weight of the film itself.  But in the end, the hallucinatory haze of Vietnam, the descent into madness for not just Kurtz, but also Coppola himself and the epic vision weren’t quite enough to overcome some of the problems of the film.  It is most obviously a work of genius.  But I’m holding Alien up just that little bit higher.

Shall I start with the genius or the madness?  They both come into play in the very first scene.  The slow swoop of the helicopter blades, staring at the tree line, the slow start of the epic bass line of “The End” and then the world explodes.  But look, also how long these opening scenes permeate.  We aren’t allowed a break from them.  So much of the film is like that.  It is easy to see how difficult the film must have been to edit – just look at the 202 minute Redux version or the 283 minute bootleg version that has been circulating for years.  There are moments in the Redux version that add to what Coppola is doing – the scenes with the French plantation, then followed by the spear-hurling natives show a journey back through time, away from civilization – but they also drastically slow up the film and that is the problem to begin with.  In some ways, the film could have been cut even tighter.  There are so many brilliant moments in this film – from the surfing to the “Ride of the Valkyries” scene (one of the greatest scenes in all of film history, without a doubt) to the overall allegory of the madness of the soul that war brings.  But there are moments that drag badly, where it seems like the journey will never end.  I am reminded of the quote by Joyce on Finnegan’s Wake – “It took me 17 years to write it.  It should take them 17 years to read it.”  It’s as if Coppola wants us to feel the journey that brought this film into the world.  But so much at the end just dissolves into a haze.

There are other uneven aspects of the film.  There are brilliantly edited sequences, but also ones that drag.  The music, the sound and the cinematography are all amazing – even more so for the different ways the film is shot during the different parts of the journey.  But the acting is uneven.  Martin Sheen is very solid, but smack in the middle of the film comes Robert Duvall and he is so perfect, so insane in the midst of this insane war, with his brilliant lines that everyone else in the film just pales in comparison.  In fact, nothing in the film after he leaves seem to have the energy that he brought into it.

It is an amazing film.  Though not as great as The Godfather, it is the surest sign of Coppola’s brilliance as a director, because so much of it belongs to his vision.  But in the end, it falls that tiny sliver short of my top spot.

Bob Fosse's autobiographical magnum opus: All That Jazz (1979)

All That Jazz

  • Director:  Bob Fosse
  • Writer:  Bob Fosse  /  Robert Alan Arthur
  • Producer:  Robert Alan Arthur
  • Studio:  Columbia  /  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Roy Scheider,  Jessica Lange, Leland Palmer
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actor (Scheider), Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Original Song Score and Its Adaptation or Adaptation Score
  • Oscar Points:  335
  • Length:  123 min
  • Genre:  Musical
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $37.82 mil
  • Release Date:   20 December 1979
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #5  (year)  /  #127  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Scheider), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  285

The Film:  What do All That Jazz and Dangerous Liaisons have in common?  Of the few films in the past 50 years to end up with an Oscar nomination for Best Picture without precursors (no BP wins or noms, no DGA nom) they are the two that the Academy got right – they belong in the Best Picture race and it’s to the Academy’s credit that they saw what the other groups didn’t see.

All That Jazz does so many things that you shouldn’t do in a film.  It is blatantly autobiographical, but offers a thin disguise (the film that Joe Gideon is making is obviously Lenny and he did indeed have a heart attack while working on Chicago).  It continually revisits the same scenes, cycling through them again and again.  It contains an outlandish dream sequence.  It offers a framing device, Gideon speaking to the Angel of Death, that would be flunked by any screenwriting professor.  Yet, when it is all put together, it creates a tour de force – the single highest artistic achievement of a truly great director.  Because it finds a way to do all those things that shouldn’t be done and do them so right and have them work so in concert with each other – the constant scenes of Joe preparing and then looking in the mirror and saying “It’s showtime,” but so much more wearily as the film goes on.  And the story works so well because it is so real – Fosse even got his own heart surgery team to be filmed for the open heart surgery in the film.

Fosse directs the film with a sure hand.  Not only does he keep everything from spinning out of control in the quick editing, but also draws magnificent performances from the entire cast – most notably Roy Scheider, giving easily the best performance of his career, and Jessica Lange, dying to prove she could really act and proving that she, in fact, could.

All of this leads up to the closing musical number – a number overwhelming in some senses for its sheer production, but so perfect, not only in the introduction, but in the song choice, the movements, and, of course, the final slide toward oblivion.

one of the great enjoyable, inspirational films: Breaking Away (1979)

Breaking Away

  • Director:  Peter Yates
  • Writer:  Steve Tesich
  • Producer:  Peter Yates
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Paul Dooley, Barbara Barrie, Daniel Stern, Jackie Earl Haley
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Supporting Actress (Barrie), Original Song Score and Its Adaptation or Adaptation Score
  • Oscar Points:  215
  • Length:  101 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $16.42 mil
  • Release Date:   20 July 1979
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #8  (year)  /  #189  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Dooley), Supporting Actress (Barrie), Editing, Sound
  • Nighthawk Points:  140

The Film:  Breaking Away does a couple of things that are rare to see in films.  First, it presents us with four teenage boys that are really just good guys.  They’re from Bloomington, Indiana, the heart of the Hoosiers and they feel isolated by the fact that they’re hometown Cutters rather than students at Indiana University.  It can be hard enough to know what to do with yourself after high school, especially in an economy where jobs are hard to find.  But to add on top of that the inferiority complex that can come from being a hometown kid in a college town, it can be so much harder.  Who the hell are these guys who come in to our spots, swim in our quarries, act like they own the place?  These guys have their own problems as well – one of them is the younger brother of a town cop, one has a father who seems to always understand his failures and one has parents who have fled back to Chicago in the hopes of finding jobs.

The last one is obsessed with bicycling and has come to live everything in his life as if he were Italian – even renaming Jake the family cat Fellini.  But it is the home life of this last one – the star of the film, Dennis Christopher – that is the other rare thing.  He has both parents at home and they both genuinely love him.  They want what is best for him.  They are kind and caring and they act like real parents, get frustrated with him and with each other in real ways.  Late in the film, before the big race, his father takes him over to the campus of the university and explains how he made the stone for the building, how his life is not necessarily the life for his son.  It is a touching and wonderful scene (and is echoed in 16 Candles in the wonderful scene between father and daughter when he realizes that everyone forgot his daughter’s birthday, not only for the genuineness of each scene but because Paul Dooley so wonderfully plays both fathers), the kind of thing we don’t get enough of in films.  After watching the early struggles of parenthood in Kramer vs. Kramer, it is a relief to watch a film like Breaking Away and see some wonderful parents (especially for the line where Dooley says “I didn’t want you to be this miserable.  A little is all I ask.”).

Of course all of this is just part of the film.  The main plot revolves around how Christopher is able to focus his obsession on bicycling for a chance for all four of them to find some self-confidence in winning the Little 500, a big bike race that involves the fraternities from the university.  All four of them – Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley – were pretty much unknown at the time and all four are wonderful in the way they each establish their own characters that are different from each other yet all the same.  It all comes down to the final race and exactly how it will work out becomes less about the outcome than the journey, especially in who is there in the final moments to watch it.

Then there is also that final wonderful moment of the film and the great look on Dooley’s face.  It was Barbara Barrie who got nominated (and richly deserved it), but Dooley deserved to be on that list just as much as she did.  And I am reminded of it every time I watch the film, especially with that final shot.

Sally Field won the Oscar for Norma Rae. She didn't deserve it, but she did win it.

Norma Rae

  • Director:  Martin Ritt
  • Writer:  Harriet Frank Jr.  /  Irving Ravetch
  • Producer:  Tamara Asseyev  /  Alex Rose
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Sally Field, Beau Bridges
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Actress (Field), Original Song (“It Goes Like It Goes”)
  • Oscar Points:  180
  • Length:  110 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Social)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $22.22 mil
  • Release Date:   2 March 1979
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #44  (year)  /  #376  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Field)
  • Nighthawk Points:  35

The Film:  I didn’t want to watch this film again because in a sense I lived it.  Except my situation was so much different.  We didn’t need a union – we just had an overactive staff that was pretty pissy.  The situation in this film is much different – this company really does need a union.  They need someone who is willing to stand up for the other employees, the kind of person who will stand on a table until everyone notices her.  It has a strong performance from Sally Field as that person, a strong woman who is tired of taking shit from life, from her church, from her employers.  She is willing to make that stand.

It’s too bad that the film is fairly uninteresting outside of that.  Perhaps it wants to do too much?  After all, it’s not only dealing with the forming of a union, but racial strife, sexual tensions and even religious prejudice (there’s a rather ugly scene where the big time New York union rep is inside the factory, looking around and calls one of the managers “brother” and he replies “No kike is my brother.”).  Or maybe it’s just that the other part of the story – Norma has two children from two different fathers and is now married to a third man, just isn’t that interesting – I’ve already seen it in so many films.  Or maybe it’s the clumsy way in which it is made.  Things are made too black and white in the confrontations with management.  And that famous scene where Norma holds up the sign – in clips that usuallys lasts for a few seconds – but in the film it goes on for a really long time as she keeps moving and making sure that everyone in the factory sees it and very, very slowly, people start turning off the machines.  It would be more effective to just hear the machines going off.  But Ritt isn’t going for any subtlety here.

The film is still a solid film – in fact a better film than I remembered, and Field really is quite good – better than she is in her second Oscar winning performance, even though she still didn’t deserve her Oscar.