Ordinary People: The film and Timothy Hutton won Oscars in 1980 over Raging Bull and Joe Pesci when they shouldn't have. Mary Tyler Moore should have but lost to Sissy Spacek.

The 53rd Academy Awards for the film year 1980.  The nominations were announced on February 17, 1981 and the awards were held on March 31, 1981.

Best Picture:  Ordinary People

  • Raging Bull
  • The Elephant Man
  • Tess
  • Coal Miner’s Daughter

Most Surprising Omission:  The Stunt Man

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Breaker Morant

Rank  (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #10

The Race: Loretta Lynn was allowing a film biopic to be made of her life and she insisted on casting Sissy Spacek.  Spacek was leery of the role but was talked into it and when the film came out it was to solid reviews and it became by far the biggest hit of the spring of 1980.  With the summer dominated by The Empire Strikes Back, Airplane! and The Blues Brothers, Coal Miner was the only big Oscar fare until the fall when films started lining up at the gate.  There was Melvin and Howard, the offbeat comedy from Jonathan Demme about a gas station owner and Howard Hughes that was headed for obscurity until it managed to secure the opening of the New York Film Festival to rave reviews.  Then was Robert Redford’s directorial debut, Ordinary People.

Ordinary People had Mary Tyler Moore playing against type as the cold distant mother dealing with a son’s death and the other son’s attempted suicide and it earned great reviews, very good box office and moved to the top of the Oscar list.  Following it was The Elephant Man directed by David Lynch, known for his cult film Eraserhead.  Christmas brought a slough of final Oscar bait: Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Roman Polanski’s Tess (which had opened in Europe the year before) and a small film from a director known mostly for biker films.  Richard Rush’s The Stunt Man earned great reviews for star Peter O’Toole who admitted to essentially playing David Lean.

The National Board of Review opened awards season on December 18 with Best Picture and Director going to Ordinary People, though Raging Bull and Coal Miner’s Daughter took home the lead acting awards.  Next up were the L.A. Film Critics, who went with Raging Bull for Picture but Polanski for Director (De Niro and Spacek won again).  The New York Film Critics went back to Ordinary People but gave Best Director to Demme (and of course, the leads to De Niro and Spacek).  The National Society of Film Critics didn’t solve anything, giving Melvin and Howard Best Picture, but Director to Scorsese (this time O’Toole won Best Actor).  The new group on the block, the Boston Society of Film Critics repeated the results from L.A., though Gena Rowlands won Best Actress for Gloria.

The Golden Globes cemented front-runner status on Ordinary People and Raging Bull, with Picture, Director and Screenplay nominations for each.  Also scoring the big three were The Elephant Man and The Stunt ManOrdinary People then became the prohibited favorite by taking home Picture and Director.  Tess, with a nomination for Director and a win for Foreign Film and Coal Miner’s Daughter with a win for Picture (Comedy / Musical) were both still in the race as well.  The Directors Guild nominees were Redford, Scorsese, Lynch, Rush and Coal Miner director Michael Apted (with Redford winning) and all of them but Raging Bull had WGA nominations.  But they were all in the same category (Adapted Drama) which Ordinary People won.  With 4 Globe nominations (including Picture (Comedy)) and a WGA win, Melvin and Howard was also still alive in the race.

The Results: He couldn’t come to the ceremony, but Polanski was in the race.  Not only Polanski, but his film as well.  Melvin and Howard and The Stunt Man had major nominations, but were limited to 3 each and they were both out of the Picture race, though Rush had snagged the final director nomination.  Out of the director’s race was Apted, though Coal Miner’s Daughter had 7 nominations.  The big winners among the nominees were Elephant Man and Raging Bull, with 8 each.  But Elephant Man had won no globes or critics awards and Raging Bull had no Screenplay nomination, so Ordinary People, in spite of only having 6 nominations (and no technical nominations) looked like the favorite.  Nothing changed on Oscar night, as Ordinary People only managed to lose Actress (to Spacek) and Supporting Actor (Judd Hirsch losing to his co-star Timothy Hutton).  In the end, it had Picture, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay and Robert Redford, who had only managed one nomination as an actor, was now an Oscar winning director.

Robert Redford's film debut that won the Oscar: Ordinary People (1980)

Ordinary People

  • Director:  Robert Redford
  • Writer:  Alvin Sargent  (from the novel by Judith Guest)
  • Producer:  Ronald L. Schwary
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, Timothy Hutton, Judd Hirsch
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Moore), Supporting Actor (Hutton), Supporting Actor (Hirsch)
  • Oscar Points:  395
  • Oscar Note:  The last Best Picture winner to not be nominated for Best Editing
  • Length:  124 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $54.76 mil  (#11 – 1980)
  • Release Date:  19 September 1980
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #5  (year)  /  #101  (nominees)  /  #30  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Moore), Supporting Actor (Hutton), Supporting Actor (Hirsch)
  • Nighthawk Points:  250

The Film:  They are not average people.  They have a lot of wealth and they have a lot of pain, most of it hidden for a long time under the surface, but now rising to the top.  Their success and wealth has allowed them a life of privilege – the type of people who never bother to stay home in the rich Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, but instead travel at Christmas every year.  But when confronted with tragedy, the kind of tragedy that none of them are able to rise above, they discover that they are, in fact, ordinary.

Ordinary People suffers in the same way that certain other films do – How Green Was My Valley, In the Heat of the Night, Dances with Wolves – in that it won Best Picture at the Oscars over a better film, one which was already being hailed by many as a classic.  So people look at Ordinary People and they think of it as the film that beat Raging Bull.  But looking at it again, as the film that it is, it has surprising depth, intelligence and quality to it.

Look at many of the camera shots.  They start out from farther away, and only slowly move in towards the characters and the action.  This is much like the film itself – by the time we start, not only has the older brother already died, but the suicide attempt and the following hospitalization of the younger brother has also already past.  We start from farther away and slowly move towards the characters.

Robert Redford was never a great actor.  He was a very good looking actor with a lot of charm and charisma.  But there is a reason that he only earned one Oscar nomination over the course of his career.  He is a very talented director, though, and here he manages to get performances from his four main actors that are not only better than anything Redford ever did himself, but certainly the best performances of the careers of Moore and Hutton and among the best for Sutherland and Hirsch.  He gets at the emotional core of each character, allowing them to develop over the course of the film.  Nothing in the film is rushed, but nothing feels too slow either.  It was the last film (so far) to earn Best Picture without any technical nominations (indeed, the last one to not get nominated for Best Editing), but the technical aspects of the film are far better than we would think – it is well shot, well paced and the film always look good.  It’s just that the performances and the emotions are so powerful that we don’t think about anything else.

It lost Best Picture but many would later call it the best film of the decade: Raging Bull (1980)

Raging Bull

  • Director:  Martin Scorsese
  • Writer:  Paul Schrader  /  Mardik Martin  (based on the book by Jake LaMotta)
  • Producer:  Irwin Winkler  /  Robert Chartoff
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Actor (De Niro), Supporting Actor (Pesci), Supporting Actress (Moriarty), Editing, Cinematography, Sound
  • Oscar Points:  320
  • Length:  129 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Biopic)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $23.33 mil  (#27 – 1980)
  • Release Date:  19 December 1980
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #37  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (De Niro), Supporting Actor (Pesci), Supporting Actress (Moriarty), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Sound Editing, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  590

The Film:  It is one of the great films of all-time, widely hailed as the best film of the decade in several polls.  It is not a narrative masterpiece like Chinatown, it does not tell a grand story like The Godfather and it is not a showy spectacle like Star Wars.  It is a film of raw, blunt emotions.  It is well known that Scorsese chose to make the film in black-and-white because he didn’t want to overwhelm people with all the blood and it was done so at the suggestion of Michael Powell, who pointed out that Scorsese’s problem with the early shots was the color of the gloves.  But the real reason it is in black-and-white is because in color this film would overwhelm you.  Not with blood.  With emotion.

This film pounds you into submission.  By the time you finish watching, you feel emotionally wasted.  But the film works in the exact same way that Jake LaMotta worked.  He was a man entirely incapable of dealing with his emotions.  He internalized his feelings about women, especially his wife.  He suffered from the Madonna / Whore Complex – she was the perfectly saintly figure for as long as he desired her.  But once he found a physical release for his desire, he figured that if she submitted to him then she would submit to anyone.  So he raged against her, sometimes literally pounding her into submission the same way that he did with his opponents in the ring.  He worked the same with his brother.  It’s why he was such an effective boxer.  The title is so appropriate.  His entire life is about his rage and his release for it – in this case entirely through his fists.  He was a man entirely incapable of dealing with his emotions in any other way.

There are those who say it is the story, not he who tells it.  But the story of Jake LaMotta is just the kind of tragic story that so many have lived – he found some success in his chosen profession, but he found some astounding failures in his personal life.  This story is entirely about those who tell it.  It is the ultimate triumph of method acting for Robert De Niro.  People already knew what to expect of him – in the course of seven years, he had won an Oscar, been nominated for two more (both of which he should have won) and had two performances in 1973 that were both better than the actual winner of Best Supporting Actor.  With the combination of him, Nicholson, Pacino, Hoffman and Hackman he made the decade.  So much of the talk about the seventies focused on the directors and the kind of films they were allowed to make, but so much of that success belongs with the actors in those films.  De Niro actually boxed to prepare for the film, winning two fights and then he had them stop filming so he could gain weight for the later scenes.  The film even incorporates the ultimate irony – De Niro in method mode, playing LaMotta, who is playing Brando playing Terry Malloy.  The ode to the god who came before.  But there was more.  There was Moriarty, just starting her career and Pesci being rescued when his career was about to bottom out.  There is Thelma Schoonmaker, whose brilliant cutting of the film won her her first Oscar, beginning with those first lonely moments of the man bouncing up and down in the ring, controlling his emotions in the only way he knows how.  Because of contractual issues, this was the first time Schoonmaker had edited a Scorsese film since his directorial debut, but it was the beginning of probably the greatest director / editor combination in film history, one that has lead to two more Oscars.  But there is also the cinematography of Michael Chapman, who places us right in the ring itself, with LaMotta coming right at us, in beautifully constructed shots.  We get close enough that we can see the rage in his eyes.

Then there is, of course, Marty himself.  This film saved his life.  He had spiraled out of control with his drug use after New York, New York and was in a bed in the hospital when De Niro threw LaMotta’s autobiography on his bed and said “You should make this.”  Pouring himself into this work, finding his own rage and focusing it so tightly, making use of those around him, he brings us straight into LaMotta’s life and we spend the next two hours watching, pushing away, desperately wanting to see where it will go next and trying to escape.  And we recoil from emotions so powerful that we couldn’t possibly bear them if we had to see them in living color.

The Elephant Man: the only David Lynch film to get a Best Picture nomination

The Elephant Man

  • Director:  David Lynch
  • Writer:  Christopher De Vore  /  Eric Bergren  /  David Lynch  (from the book by Sir Frederick Treves and the book by Ashley Montagu)
  • Producer:  Jonathan Sanger
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Freddie Jones, Anne Bancroft, Wendy Hiller, John Gielgud
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Hurt), Editing, Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  255
  • Length:  124 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Biopic)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $26.01 mil  (#25 – 1980)
  • Release Date:  10 October 1980
  • Ebert Rating:  **
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #72  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Hurt), Supporting Actor (Jones), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  350

The Film:  It is not a Lon Chaney film.  By that I do not mean that the makeup is applied to John Hurt in a way to bring realism and poignancy to the screen rather than horror, though that is true.  What I mean is the way that David Lynch presents us with John Merrick, the disfigured man in late 19th Century London who became a sensation.  We don’t get the sudden shock of seeing him for the first time, like in Phantom of the Opera, or the quick edits, closer and closer to reveal the horror like in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Instead, we see bits and pieces, glimpses in the shadows, the slight appearance of the disfigured face, the closer look at the scarred back.  Then we have the silhouette of the ravaged body during a clinical discussion.  This isn’t about the shock of suddenly seeing him.

In fact, this film isn’t really about John Merrick at all.  That’s what that scene is about.  That’s what reviews like the one of Roger Ebert don’t seem to understand.  He accuses the film of being another one of those After-school specials type that show us how the person with the disability is so strong because they are able to live with the disability.  But Merrick is the mirror.  That’s what brings the tear out of Dr. Treves’ eye when he finally gets to see the man himself and that’s why the tear is the important thing in the scene rather than the revelation of Merrick’s disfigurement.  Treves weeps for humanity, for what they can not understand, for what they shun and push away rather than try to do.  Merrick is right, in a sense.  He isn’t a monster.  But he’s not really a man either.  Because in a Lynch film, to be a man, is to be the monster.

All of this is brought to us in an exquisitely made film.  It is one of only six black-and-white films since the sixties to be nominated for Best Picture and in some ways, is the most beautiful.  Somehow, Lynch manages to find a world of shadows and fog and still make it colorfully come to life without any color pallete.  It has magnificent costumes and a makeup job so fine that it made the Academy essentially hang their head in shame and announce that the following year they would finally institute a permanent Best Makeup category.  It also has several fine performances in the supporting roles, as well as a solid job from Anthony Hopkins as Treves, a darkly brutal performance by Freddie Jones and a magnificent performance by John Hurt as Merrick himself, one that almost certainly would have won the Oscar in any year without Robert De Niro’s performance as Jake LaMotta.

Polanski couldn't come to L.A. but his film could and went home with 2 Oscars

Tess

  • Director:  Roman Polanski
  • Writer:  Roman Polanski  /  Gerard Brach  /  John Brownjohn  (from the novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy)
  • Producer:  Claude Berri  /  Timothy Burrill
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Nastassja Kinski, Peter Firth, John Collin
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Cinematography, Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  240
  • Length:  190 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Tragedy)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $20.09 mil  (#33 – 1980)
  • Release Date:  12 December 1980
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #8  (year)  /  #171  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  125

The Film:  One of the problems facing any filmmaker who wants to adapt Thomas Hardy for the screen is the nature of tragedy.  You must be able to balance the scope of the naturalism with the weight of the tragedy.  It’s easy to look at the page and picture the story coming to life on-screen.  It’s much harder to make a film that is good, that doesn’t overwhelm you with darkness, that stays true to Hardy and his themes, but can also underscore the innocence at the heart of so much of Hardy’s work.

Was there ever a director more suited to Hardy than Roman Polanski?  Here was a man in his mid-forties who had already survived the greatest tragedy in history, the most publicized set of brutal murders of the twentieth century and the weight of law pressing against him for his own arrogance and stupidity.  If there was any director who seemed to understand the weight of tragedy it was him.  So he put together this film, this labor of love that his wife had always wanted to make (and we can be thankful she didn’t – nothing in the short career of Sharon Tate gave any indication that she was capable of the acting necessary to portray Tess on screen), gave it the right amount of darkness, but also remembered to include the sun.  Indeed, the cinematography of this film seems to bear perfect witness to the kind of film that Polanski was making.  He wanted to show how trapped Tess Durbeyfield is by the events in her life – how she wants to be a better person, but is betrayed through events and through the weakness of those around her and even her own weakness – something that Polanski would well know.

Too often Hollywood doesn’t understand tragedy unless it is presented in classical Elizabethan Shakespeare.  Thus a film like Leaving Las Vegas, which leaves its viewers so empty and isolated at the end would score all the major nominations except for Best Picture and the naturalistic tragedy of A Place in the Sun would win Best Director and Screenplay but not Best Picture.  That Polanski would so balance everything with exquisite craftmanship, smart casting and a great reading of Hardy’s classic novel would allow the Academy to nominate him and his film at a time when there was no question that he couldn’t return to the country.  And he does it with class and craft and style, elements that rarely manage to work together in a work of great literature.  It’s so much easier to make a good film out of pulp, it’s nice for a change to see a film winning Oscars (and even if they aren’t my choice, they are good choices) with a great work.

Spacek won her Oscar for The Coal Miner's Daughter in 1980

Coal Miner’s Daughter

  • Director:  Michael Apted
  • Writer:  Thomas Rickman  (from the autobiography by Loretta Lynn and George Vecsey)
  • Producer:  Bernard Schwartz
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Stars:  Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, Levon Helm, Beverly D’Angelo
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Spacek), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction
  • Oscar Points:  250
  • Length:  125 min
  • Genre:  Musical  (Biopic)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $67.18 mil  (#7 – 1980)
  • Release Date:  7 March 1980
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #31  (year)  /  #358  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Spacek)
  • Nighthawk Points:  35

The Film:  In his original review, back in 1980, Roger Ebert seemed to sum it up pretty well: “It’s warm, entertaining, funny, and centered around that great Sissy Spacek performance, but it’s essentially pretty familiar material (not that Loretta Lynn can be blamed that Horatio Alger wrote her life before she lived it).”  He’s right on all levels, though, not being a fan of country music, I wasn’t nearly as entertained as he was (or many people, given that it was one of the top 10 films of the year at the box office).  But it is warm, it is funny and it works as well as it does because Spacek is so perfectly cast (reportedly at Lynn’s insistence).  There are also decent supporting performance from Tommy Lee Jones as her husband and Levon Helm as her father, but this film is all about Spacek’s performance as country star Loretta Lynn.

She did live a Horatio Alger life.  As the poster says, she was married by 13 and by age 20 she had four kids and they needed to escape West Virginia.  It was a birthday present of a guitar from her husband that started her on an actual singing career and whether their life really was as mellow as the film seems to suggest (especially compared to later music biopics such as Ray and Walk the Line), they seemed to have supported each other and were married for some 50 years before his death in 1996.  Lynn rose along with Patsy Cline (taking off even more after Cline’s death) and she was one of the first major female country stars and is still one of the biggest selling country artists of all-time.  And Spacek has the magical ability to really seem like she’s 13 in the opening part of the film and seem like she’s in her thirties later without any makeup, just with her performance.  It is a very good performance and worthy of an Oscar in a year that didn’t include Mary Tyler Moore’s tour-de-force performance in Ordinary People.  But the film really doesn’t earn its place in the Best Picture category.  It’s watchable and I imagine very enjoyable for country fans.  But it’s not a great film.  It’s just a good film, the kind of thing we’ve seen before and would see again.  And one of the things when you live a Horatio Alger life is that your life might not have that much of a story arc.  Take the music out of the life of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash and they’re still at least interesting.  Take the music out of Coal Miner’s Daughter and you’re going to be really bored, really quickly.

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