the courtyard race in Chariots of Fire (1981); yes, there are scenes in the film other than the opening run along the beach

The 54th Academy Awards, for the film year 1981.  The nominations were announced on 11 February, 1982 and the awards were held on 29 March, 1982.

Best Picture:  Chariots of Fire

  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Reds
  • Atlantic City
  • On Golden Pond

Most Surprising Omission:  Ragtime

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Gallipoli

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #28

The Race: Louis Malle’s Atlantic City had won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in September of 1980.  Paramount finally opened it in the States in April of 1981 and the critics couldn’t stop gushing about the film or its star, Burt Lancaster.  But the public couldn’t be convinced and it never managed to make much money.  But Paramount didn’t care – after all, they had the combination of the two men who had made the three biggest films of all-time: George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.  Lucas’ story about an adventurer named Indiana Jones, first suggested to Spielberg when the men were on vacation in Hawaii together after the opening of Star Wars became yet another Spielberg smash and the two now had combined for the four biggest films of all-time as Raiders of the Lost Ark quickly climbed the box-office charts.

Almost disappearing under the weight of Raiders‘ reviews and grosses were Arthur, a comedy that hearkened back to the thirties with Dudley Moore, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the film adaptation of John Fowles’ magnificent novel that had defied directors for over a decade.  Both had good reviews, with bulk of them going for John Geilgud as Arthur’s butler and Meryl Streep as the Woman.  In the meantime, after a triumphant appearance at Cannes and opening night of the New York Film Festival, producer David Puttnam’s new film, Chariots of Fire was opening to strong reviews and strong box office.

The normal onslaught of serious fall films brought forth Milos Forman’s adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, the uniting on-screen of Henry Fonda with his daughter Jane in On Golden Pond and Warren Beatty’s three hour epic of the Russian Revolution: RedsReds would quickly receive a massive amount of awards attention, winning Best Director from the LA Film Critics, Best Picture from the New York Film Critics and Director and a tie for Picture at the National Board of Review.  Chariots of Fire would take home the other half of the NBR award while Atlantic City would take home Best Picture from the LA Film Critics.  The final major group, the National Society of Film Critics, were clearly on the Atlantic City side of any argument, picking the film for Picture, Director, Screenplay and Actor – the first film to ever take home all four awards from the group.

The Golden Globes would simply confuse things.  Chariots of Fire and Atlantic City were both considered Foreign films and were ineligible for Best Picture (they would not change the rules for Foreign films in English until the mid-80’s), though Atlantic City would be up for Director.  Raiders was nominated for Director, but nothing else.  Instead, the big films were On Golden Pond, Reds, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Ragtime and Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City.  All five were nominated for Best Picture (Drama) and only French Lieutenant’s Woman was out of the Director race.  Warren Beatty would continue his awards accolades by winning Director, but On Golden Pond would take home Picture and Screenplay.  At the Writers Guild Awards, both Reds and On Golden Pond would take home awards, being in different categories, while Atlantic City, Prince of the City, Ragtime and Raiders would all earn nominations.  But the Directors Guild welcomed Chariots of Fire into its final five along with Reds, Atlantic City, On Golden Pond and Raiders, with Beatty taking home yet another award.

The Results: Reds was up for 12 awards, including all four acting awards.  Beatty himself was up for four awards for the second time (the only other person to do it was Orson Welles).  The other four films were its competitors for the DGA and for the first time since 1964, all the Best Picture nominees were nominated for Best Director, so there was no film that could be immediately written off.  On Golden Pond was up for 10 awards and was the only film up for Adapted Screenplay, so it figured to win at least one award.  Atlantic City was only up for 5, but like Reds and Pond, was up for the big five: Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor and Actress.  Chariots of Fire looked far back in the pack, but at least had a Screenplay nomination, which was not among the 8 nominations for Raiders.

All of the momentum looked like it was going towards Reds, especially when Maureen Stapleton won Best Supporting Actress for the first award of the night.  But by the time the show got to the major awards, it was Raiders that had four Oscars (plus one special Oscar), while Reds and Chariots had two each and Pond didn’t have any.  But then Beatty took home Best Director and it looked like Reds might be the big film of the night.  But it lost the next award, Original Screenplay to Chariots of Fire, and then Pond took home three in a row, with Adapted Screenplay and then wins over Reds in Actor and Actress.  So, going into the final award, it was three wins each for Reds, Pond and Chariots.  But then, suddenly, it was Chariots that took it all, winning Best Picture and stunning Hollywood pundits everywhere.

the Best Picture that somehow was: Chariots of Fire (1981)

Chariots of Fire

  • Director:  Hugh Hudson
  • Writer:  Collin Welland
  • Producer:  David Puttnam
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Nicholas Farrell, Ian Holm
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Supporting Actor (Holm), Editing, Original Score, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  360
  • Length:  124 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Historical)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $58.97 mil  (#7 – 1981)
  • Release Date:  9 October 1981
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #16  (year)  /  #298  (nominees)  /  #62  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Score
  • Nighthawk Points:  25

The Film:  If it didn’t open with that wonderful Vangelis score as the young men run across the beach, would it have won Best Picture?  Would it have even been nominated?  At the time, it seemed to sweep people away.  It so swept away Roger Ebert that he convinced those at Cannes to give a new award for it (the French critics objected to its depiction of the French).  It ended up as one of the highest grossing films of the year and made ten times its cost.  Perhaps Americans were thrilled to watch the Olympics after the boycott of the Summer Olympics the year before, even if the Americans come off badly against the Brits.  Or perhaps they did exactly what I just suggested – they got so swept up with that stirring anthem as they run across the beach and couldn’t think of anything else.

To be fair, it is a truly phenomenal piece of music.  It stirs the soul and makes you think of that opening scene (the same scene also closes the film, bookmarking it, around the funeral that is actually the opening and ending of the film, but people often forget that).  That I do not give it my Nighthawk Award is because it is from the same year as the score from Raiders, which I hold up as the greatest film score of all-time.  This, certainly, is the greatest second place finisher in the history of the Nighthawk Awards.

But what of the rest of the film?  It’s really not that much worth remembering.  Oh, certainly it is good enough.  It tells a fairly compelling story of two young men, one Jewish and one the son of Scottish missionaries.  They both run for their own glory and for more than that – for Ben Cross, the best of the young performers, it is settling the score against all those stuffed shirts who would look down on him for being a Jew; there is a great scene where he stands up to the heads of the college to hold a mirror to their own arrogance and prejudice.  For Ian Charleson, as the Scot, he finds his path in this simple phrase: “I believe God made me for a purpose.  But he also made me fast.”

So, they both succeed against the odds, both manage to beat more highly hyped American runners and win Olympic gold at the 1924 Paris Olympics.  And while many would find that the compelling part of the story, for me, it loses interest.  They go against the odds and they win.  How many films have that story?  What was so refreshing about Rocky is that he didn’t win.

The film is solidly acted, though Cross is far better than the other young actors; it is really the elder British actors, most notably Ian Holm who lead the way.  The music is very stirring and it is well put together.  But it is not particularly well directed (Hudson is one of the worst directors to ever receive an Oscar nomination, though this wouldn’t be apparent until later) and that opening scene is rather clumsily filmed.  I still think that without that music this film would have simply faded away into obscurity.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): drama / comedy / action / adventure / fantasy; a film for all genres

Raiders of the Lost Ark

  • Director:  Steven Spielberg
  • Writer:  Lawrence Kasdan  /  George Lucas  /  Philip Kaufman
  • Producer:  Frank Marshall
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, John Rhys-Davies, Paul Freeman, Denholm Elliott
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Effects Editing (special award)
  • Oscar Points:  355
  • Length:  115 min
  • Genre:  Fantasy
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $209.56 mil  (#1 – 1981; #3 all-time upon initial release)
  • Release Date:  12 June 1981
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #12  (nominees)  /  #16  (all-time)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Ford), Actress (Allen), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  685

The Film:  More than any other film outside of The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings, Raiders of the Lost Ark deftly combines the concepts of entertainment and art (yes, even more so than Star Wars).  It is as well-made as just about any film in history and it is non-stop fun from the opening credits, straight through to the end.  When people ask me what my favorite film is, after I explain that my favorite film and the best film are not the same thing, I tell them that I have four favorite films, the ones that absolutely share a place in my heart and that I can not imagine being without: Star Wars, The Princess Bride, The Return of the King and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Raiders won five Oscars – Editing, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects and a special award for Sound Effects Editing.  Yet, ironically, it was the ones it didn’t win that it deserved the most.  It was nominated for Picture, Director, Cinematography and Original Score.  And of course there were the categories it wasn’t even nominated for.

Let’s start with the wins.  Raiders is amazingly constructed, with elaborate sets and concepts.  Either the early scenes in Peru or the Map Room and the Well of the Souls in Tanis would be enough to earn the Art Direction Oscar, but with both of them together, there was no question.  It was storyboarded, so that Spielberg knew exactly how to construct the film and that shows in the editing, effortlessly moving from shot to shot.  Look at the fight scene at the plane.  Even though there is plenty of gore at the end of the film, here they knew exactly how to construct the shots and go from the look of horror on the soldier’s face to the splatter of blood along the side of the plane.  Or the way we move through the travel scenes, so perfectly edited to keep us flowing like an old-time adventure movie from the 1930’s (certain genres thrive at certain times, but just as Chinatown showed you could still make a brilliant 40’s noir film in the 70’s, so too did Raiders prove you could make a perfect 30’s adventure film in the 80’s).  There is the Sound and the Sound Editing, the crack of the whip, the rolling of the stone ball, the sound of a sword flashing through the air.  Then there are the Visual Effects – not just the flashy effects from the end of the film with the melting faces, but the other moments, like the way they do the truck fight scenes or the temple in Peru.

But now let’s look at what it didn’t win.  It didn’t win Best Picture.  It was considered a triumph enough that it was nominated – for any who doubted Spielberg’s ability and his love from the Academy, there is the fact that in less than a decade he took three films from three genres that rarely earned Best Picture nominations, Horror, Fantasy and Sci-Fi, and made them so well that the Academy had little choice but to nominate them.  But let’s face it – it clearly is the film of the  year, not just with me, not just with the box office (where it earned almost twice as much as any other film), not just at the IMDb (where it is at #22 all-time and #2 in the decade, while no other film from the year made the top 250 all-time or the top 50 of the decade), but also with the critics.  It is the top film of the year in the Top 1000 put together by TSPDT by over 200 spots and it was the only film in the year picked by AFI either time.

Steven Spielberg planning a shot during the filming of Raiders. This picture used to sit above my desk at Powell's.

And of course, much of that credit goes to Spielberg.  It is his triumph and this time they at least gave him the credit – after the Picture nom for Jaws and the Director nom for Close Encounters, this was the first time where he and his film had been nominated together.  He knows exactly when to take it up a notch and exactly when to take it down.  His direction helps inform the Cinematography – which also deserved to win.  Just look at how expertly so many of these shots are crafted, always knowing the best angle to give us the right moment of suspense or surprise, right down to the fantastic wide shot of one of the great matte-paintings of all-time: the seemingly endless warehouse.

But of course, some of the credit goes as well to John Williams.  People got swept up with Chariots of Fire because of that opening scene with the remarkable Vangelis score and it is a truly iconic score, but this is perhaps the greatest score in film history.  Because the Vangelis score is so good, the loss for Williams is not a blight on the Academy’s record, but it is unfortunate.

Then we come to the categories in which it was not nominated.  They could have nominated it for the Costume Design – certainly they were as good as just about anything else in the year outside of Ragtime.  They certainly could have nominated it for Makeup (much better than Heartbeeps) – not just for things like the melting faces at the end, but for more subtle things, such as the bruises across Indiana’s chest or the scars burned into Toht’s hand.  The BAFTAs did nominate Denholm Elliott for Best Supporting Actor for his short role.  It’s strange, after seeing him become a more bumbling goofball in the third film to go back and watch how serious and how good Elliott is here as Marcus Brody (he even gets the best line in the film – when they look at the picture of the Ark and the Major goes “Good God.” he has one of the best responses in film history: “Yes, that’s just what the Hebrews thought.”).

But then there are the three main categories in which it wasn’t nominated.  First there is Karen Allen.  She is so great, right from the start, funny and sexy, smart and seductive.  She falls into the thirties stereotype at times of the female who has to be rescued, but there is a great deal of spunk and spark in her and she takes out a number of villains on her own throughout the film.  Then there is Harrison Ford.  He had already proved to the world that he was the coolest guy on the planet as Han Solo.  But this film really proved how well he could act, serious when he needed to be, funny when it called for it.  Just look at his reaction when he realizes what it says on his student’s eyelids.  Burt Lancaster himself said that he was disappointed that Ford had not been nominated (Inside Oscar, p. 606).  And finally there is the script.  It is one of the great scripts of all-time (how ironic it would have been if George Lucas, so often the subject of derision for his writing, had earned a third writing Oscar nomination) – not just in the dialogue (“Asps.  Very dangerous.  You go first.”), not just in the way it allows us to relive the fun of old thirties serials, but also in the way it takes a serious, religious subject, and makes it the topic of a great adventure film.

And all of this comes together, to create not just fabulous entertainment – I remember so vividly seeing it for the first time at a drive-in in Fullerton the week after we moved to California on a double bill with Clash of the Titans – but a magnificent work of art and one of the finest films ever made.

Who knew Warren Beatty was capable of such a film as Reds (1981)?


  • Director:  Warren Beatty
  • Writer:  Warren Beatty  /  Trevor Griffiths
  • Producer:  Warren Beatty
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Maureen Stapleton
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actor (Beatty), Actress (Keaton), Supporting Actor (Nicholson), Supporting Actress (Stapleton), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  470
  • Oscar Note:  The last film to date to receive nominations in all four acting categories
  • Length:  194 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Historical Epic)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $40.38 mil  (#13 – 1981)
  • Release Date:  4 December 1981
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #135  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Beatty), Actress (Keaton), Supporting Actor (Nicholson), Supporting Actress (Stapleton), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  470

The Film:  Warren Beatty could have simply made this a historical love story.  It could have just been about the three-way triangle of John Reed, Louise Bryant and Eugene O’Neill, with their love intersecting with history.  He could have thrown in the big historical events, like the Russian Revolution, as a backdrop.  But that would have been the Hollywood way of doing it – to make a nice epic love story.  In a sense, that had already been done with Doctor Zhivago.  There was no need to do it again.  What Beatty found fascinating about these characters wasn’t the love story.  He wanted the real human story.  He wanted this film to be about the way they intersected with history and make the love story the background.  In John Reed, he had a man who had lived a short, fascinating life – Harvard educated, in a love triangle with a forward thinker and the great playwright of his time, who got caught up with American politics and Russian revolutions and eventually died, thousands of miles from home and ended up buried in the Kremlin.

To make certain that people understood what this film was about, he began the interviews.  The interviews, conducted over a period of years, with people who had been alive at the time and remembered Reed and Bryant and the things they lived through, add a fascinating element of realism to the story.  And the balance between the aspects of the film is reflected in its Oscar nominations – one for Jack Nicholson, who adds to the human love story side of things and an Oscar for Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman, Reed’s moralistic foil.

But all of this still could have been as dry as dirt and as boring as the films you used to watch in class.  Beatty infuses the film with passion and realism.  He cast himself as Reed because he saw in him his own youthful idealism.  He cast Keaton as Bryant, partially because they had blossomed into a romance, and partially because Julie Christie, who he originally was going to cast, had insisted that he cast an American.  Both of them give phenomenal performances and the only reason I don’t use the phrase performances of a lifetime is because of Keaton’s work in Annie Hall.  They both deserved the Oscars far more than the aging couple of Fonda and Hepburn.  Then Beatty cast Nicholson because he felt (rightly) that he was the only person capable of taking a woman away from him.  That Nicholson could subdue his his seventies intensity into the mode of the glowering playwright reminded Oscar voters of what they had been missing for the past several years.  And there are the other great actors in the film – Stapleton, Paul Sorvino, Gene Hackman and a great performance from Edward Herrmann as Max Eastman.  They so vibrantly bring the film to life that even in the midst of a largely theoretical argument over who is the rightful holder of the name Communist Party in America we never feel lost or overwhelmed by the history or the politics.

It all comes down to this.  It’s not about the 12 nominations or the 3 Oscars, including the Oscar for Beatty for Director (though I choose Raiders over Reds for Director and Cinematography is not a dimunition of Beatty’s accomplishment – simply a statement of the magnitude of Spielberg’s accomplishment).  It’s about the fact that Warren Beatty does such a magnificent job with this film that, in the same year Ronald Reagan, the ultimate cold warrior became President, Beatty made a film about the Russian Revolution that was over 3 hours long and still managed to make $40 million.  Or roughly $100 million in today’s dollars.  That’s one hell of an impressive achievement.

Susan Sarandon erased the ghost of Rocky Horror with Louis Malle's Atlantic City

Atlantic City

  • Director:  Louis Malle
  • Writer:  John Guare
  • Producer:  Denis Heroux
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Burt Lancaster, Susan Sarandon, Kate Reid
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actor (Lancaster), Actress (Sarandon)
  • Oscar Points:  205
  • Oscar Note:  One of only three films to receive all big 5 nominations but no other nominations – the other two, It Happened One Night and Annie Hall, both won Picture, Director, Screenplay and Actress and the former won Actor, while Atlantic City lost all 5.  Of the 41 films nominated for the big 5, one of only 4 to win no Oscars (along with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Lenny and The Remains of the Day).
  • Length:  104 min
  • Genre:  Crime  (Gangster)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $12.72 mil  (@#56 – 1981)
  • Release Date:  3 April 1981
  • Ebert Rating:  **** (retrospective with Great Movie review – no original review)
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #4  (year)  /  #161  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Lancaster), Actress (Sarandon)
  • Nighthawk Points:  205

The Film:  I was stunned when I read Stanley Kaufmann’s A World of Film to see how little he thought of Burt Lancaster as an actor.  I first saw Lancaster in Field of Dreams, and then I discovered the rest of his career, primarily through his performances in Best Picture films – including his Oscar for Elmer Gantry and his Oscar nominated roles in From Here to Eternity and Atlantic City.  And that was before I saw him in such performances as Brute Force or The Leopard.  Lancaster combined an array of talents.  He was physically graceful, like an Errol Flynn, he was charismatic and good-looking like a Tyrone Power and he had a force of nature in his acting like Kirk Douglas.  But as he aged, he also had an air of melancholy behind his eyes and that air is what informs performances like those in The Leopard and Atlantic City.

In Atlantic City, he is not an important man like he is in The Leopard.  He is an aging numbers man, one who knows how things work, and who knows how small he is in the overarching setup of things.  He is the kind of sad old man who will watch the attractive younger woman in the apartment across the way as she coats her breasts and arms with lemon after a day of working with oysters to try and get the smell off.  He is the perfect person to play someone who is on his way out and is willing to teach something to the lovely young woman who is on her way in.  So a strange friendship is struck up between him and Sarandon, who plays Sally, that girl across the way.  Sarandon was thought of as a supporting role, yet managed to end up in the lead category at the Oscars – her first serious step away from the world of Rocky Horror and towards the career that would develop towards the end of the decade and culminate in an Oscar.

It’s possible that no American director could have quite handled this film properly.  But Louis Malle was one of the best of the French New Wave, the one who best adapted to American styles and was most able to mold solid plots in a New Wave sensibility and he is able to create a nice portrait of two lonely people who meet at this intersection and find in each other what nothing else has provided.  It’s not something that can lead to a happy ending, but happy endings were never really Malle’s forte anyway.  For a little while they both have something new and interesting in their lives.

I understand they wanted to give Henry Fonda his overdue Oscar, but really? Best Adapted Screenplay? Really?

On Golden Pond

  • Director:  Mark Rydell
  • Writer:  Ernest Thompson  (from his play)
  • Producer:  Bruce Gilbert
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Stars:  Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Jane Fonda
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium, Actor (Fonda), Actress (Hepburn), Supporting Actress (Fonda), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound
  • Oscar Points:  440
  • Length:  109 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $119.28 mil  (#2 – 1981)
  • Release Date:  4 December 1981
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #40  (year)  /  #387  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Supporting Actress (Fonda)
  • Nighthawk Points:  30

The Film:  I find it kind of amusing that Roger Ebert would criticize what he saw as the maudlin sense of sentimentality in The Elephant Man and then turn around the next year and give four stars to a sappy tear-jerker like On Golden Pond.  There are some films that are a showcase for great acting.  This film is a waste of solid acting.  It is nice that it was able to help Jane and Henry Fonda reconcile and have a good relationship as his health failed.  It is also nice to have that wonderful moment for Jane when her father finally wins the Oscar that should have been given to him decades before.

But in another sense, it’s really kind of insulting.  To give Henry Fonda the Oscar for his performance here as an aging grump who can’t keep his mind straight anymore and who must find a way to bond with his daughter’s future step-son?  They didn’t think to give him the Oscar for The Grapes of Wrath and they didn’t bother to nominate him for most of a long career that includes highlights of The Lady Eve, The Ox-Bow Incident, Mister Roberts, 12 Angry Men and Once Upon a Time in the West.  And to compound the mistake, they also decided to give one final Oscar to Katherine Hepburn for the weakest of her 12 Oscar nominated performances.  This was part of a short-lived trend, to give both leading acting Oscars to the same film (it was the fourth time in seven years – but had only happened once before this stretch and only twice since).  This was actually a year where both deserved to go to the same film, but that film was Reds.

Everything about this film shrieks of cheap sentimentality, from the opening moments where Hepburn is so excited about the loons, to the forgetfulness, to the moments on the boat with the boy, to the way everything reconciles at the end.  Of course, Fonda is good (though not deserving of an Oscar and not even, when you consider Harrison Ford in Raiders and Jeremy Irons in French Lieutenant’s Woman, worthy of a nomination), and his scenes with Jane work so well not only because of the script, but also because of the history behind them.  But to nominate the film for Best Picture?  To give it the Oscar for its writing?  That’s just going too far.