Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Look Back at the 1972 Oscars - 40 Years Later

This will be my fourth and final piece this Oscar season looking back at the Oscar years of the past. I've enjoyed it, so look for a return next year. As always, I rank the nominees in Picture, Director and the Acting categories - making excuses for ones I haven't seen - and give an overlooked film or performance in each category.

Best Picture
1.    The Godfather (Winner)
There is probably no one who is going to argue that The Godfather didn’t deserve to win the Best Picture Oscar of 1972. But people do forget that The Godfather only won three Oscars and that this was one of those rare Picture/Director split years – and Bob Fosse’s Cabaret claimed 7 Oscars. But The Godfather was the movie hit of 1972 (people who like to complain that Lucas and Spielberg ruined Hollywood by introducing the blockbuster with Jaws and Star Wars conveniently forget to mention that The Exorcist and The Godfather did the same thing earlier, but I digress), so for once, The Academy’s need to be popular actually worked in its favor in terms of prosperity. Good call.

2.    Deliverance
John Boorman’s Deliverance is perhaps the director’s most famous film – and also my favorite. It is about a group of 4 naïve city slickers who head out the backwoods to do some white water rafting before the whole area is damned up, and the river becomes a lake. But they get much more than they bargained for. Deliverance is a fascinating film about violence – surely some of what these men do is justified – but they get so blinded by it, that in the process, they become murderers. This is an intense, violent, unforgettable film.

3.    Cabaret
Cabaret is one of my favorite movie musicals because it is one of the few that doesn’t feel the need to make the audience happy. The film is actually one of the darkest musicals in history – a film about Berlin circa 1930, as the Nazi movement is just starting to rise, but everyone in this demented Cabaret feels the need to ignore it, to try desperately to be happy, even if that’s not possible. Fosse knows how to stage a musical number – and does so brilliantly at any number of occasions throughout the film. I usually pick on movie musicals, but not this time.

4.    Sounder 
If Sounder were made today, it would most likely get ripped to shreds by critics – and that is a shame, because the film is genuinely heartfelt, warm, loving and inspirational. I know some will say it’s condescending – especially because a white director (Martin Ritt) is making a film about black sharecroppers in 1933 (after all, Benh Zeitlin has been hit with that label for his Beasts of the Southern Wild). But this a heartfelt and honest film about this families experiences – made with skill and subtlety. A film to watch with the whole family, and won’t leave a dry eye in the house.

5.    The Emigrants
Jan Troell’s The Emigrants is an epic Swedish film about peasant farmers who are poor and have no chance of getting richer in Sweden, so they decide to make the long, arduous trek to America. This is not a film that completely buys into the myth of the American dream – the couple at the heart of the film, played by Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman aren’t that naïve – but it does show the clash between what they hope America will be, and what it actually is. Because of its honesty, the film is somehow more inspiring than a more artificial film on the same subject would have been. Yes the film is long – perhaps too long – and slow at times. But it is still a very good film.

Overlooked: Okay, I know Aguirre, the Wrath of God was not released in American until 1977, but you know as well as I do that they wouldn’t have nominated it anyway, so damn it, I’m including it. The mad German genius Werner Herzog’s best movie was this insane journey up the river by a heavily armored group ill equipped for the conditions, and led by the insane Klaus Kinski. It is a great, mad masterpiece as only Herzog could make, so while the Academy couldn’t have nominated it in 1972, I still feel the need to bring it up.

Best Director

1.    The Godfather - Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola damn well should have won his first directing Oscar (he won for his Patton screenplay in 1970), but I suppose they figured they could give him another screenplay Oscar for The Godfather, and then give Bob Fosse the director Oscar for Cabaret, and everyone was a winner. But Coppola’s directorial effort on The Godfather is clearly one of the highlights of his career – and in movie history. So it’s very odd that they didn’t give him the Oscar this year. Oh well, he’d win for The Godfather Part II, and has numerous Oscars at home, so no one feels too bad about this.

2.    Deliverance  - John Boorman
John Boorman’s direction of Deliverence is masterful – giving us exciting white water rafting sequence, one of the most intense confrontations in the woods ever put on film, and an excellent, white knuckle climbing sequence that leads to murder. Boorman has always been a somewhat underrated director, but the Academy rightly nominated him this time for arguably the best work of his career.

3.    Cabaret  - Bob Fosse (Winner)

No, I do not think Bob Fosse should have WON the Oscar for Cabaret, but I also think it’s fairly undeniable that he should have been nominated. His greatest directorial achievement came 7 years after Cabaret – when he made the largely autobiographical All That Jazz, but Cabaret is a fairly close second. He knows this is a dark story – not a film about happy people, but a film about desperately unhappy people trying to pretend they are happy. And damn it, if the man doesn’t know how to stage a musical number.

4.    The Emigrants - Jan Troell
Jan Troell’s direction in this epic Swedish film is probably the best thing about the film as a whole. The story is big, the canvas is big and for a Swedish film at that time, so was the budget. Yet, despite the epic feel of the movie, he keeps the film grounded in its characters and their plight. It is excellent direction indeed.

5.    Sleuth  - Joseph L. Mankiewicz
By 1972, Joseph L. Mankiewicz was already a legend. This was his 10th Oscar nomination (his fourth for directing) and he had won a total of 4 Oscars previously (for writing and directing A Letter to Three Wives in 1949 and All About Eve in 1950, making him the only person to win both writing and directing awards in back to back years). Sleuth was his 23rd and final film – and it’s good, old school fun, adaptation of a play for the screen that allowed legend Laurence Olivier and relative newcomer Michael Caine spend the entire movie in a two person acting duel. It’s certainly not Mankiewicz’s best work behind the camera, but damn it, if it’s not a hell of a lot of fun.

Overlooked: Okay, so like best picture, you really cannot fault the Academy for not nominating Andrei Tarkovsky for Solaris, since I don’t think it hit American theaters until 1973 at the earliest. But I bring it up because 1) It is one of the great directorial achievements of all time and 2) they didn’t nominate him when it was eligible (if it ever was) and never even would have considered doing so. I have never been a huge fan of Tarkovsky – like the Soviet master of a generation before, Sergei Eisenstein, I have more admired his films than actually loved them. The exception is Solaris, which is one of the best science fiction movies ever made – a film of great ideas, that looks inward at ourselves, rather than outward at our stars. A masterpiece.

Best Actor

1.    The Godfather - Marlon Brando (Winner)
I once heard someone joke that the reason they wanted to see the actual vote totals of Academy members to be released is because they wanted to see if more than 10 people DID NOT vote for Marlon Brando’s performance in The Godfather. I’m sure more than that did, but it seems odd that ANYONE could possibly vote against what has become one of, if not the most, iconic screen performance in history. People remember Brando turning down the Oscar this year, sending a native woman in his stead, but who cares? Brando delivered one of the great screen performances of all time and easily and deservedly won this award.

2.    Sleuth  - Laurence Olivier
As the old, cuckolded husband who decides to have some fun with his young wife’s new lover, Olivier is at the top of his game in Sleuth. True, the movie itself is rather stagy, but then again, it has often been said that Olivier was a better stage actor than screen actor, so he fits right in during the course of the movie. Olivier was nominated for 10 acting awards during the course of his career (including four for Shakespeare movies), and while he has certainly been better than in Sleuth, it’s still an excellent performance.

3.    Sleuth  - Michael Caine
When Sleuth begins, it looks like Caine and his character is going to be no match for Olivier and his, but throughout the course of the movie, Caine turns the table on the elder statesman. Caine, who has been nominated for 6 Oscars (and won two of them) seems to enjoy himself testing his skills against Olivier, and finding them not to be lacking in the least. He has certainly been better – his first nominated performance in Alfie for example, or Get Carter made the year before, but it’s hard to fault Caine when he’s having so much fun – and letting the audience have some as well.

4.    Sounder  - Paul Winfield
Paul Winfield delivers a fine performance in Sounder. He plays a man who knows precisely what sort of trap he and his family is in, and tries desperately to pull them out – and save that, to help ensure his son has a better life than he has had. It really is a supporting performance though – he disappears for a large stretch of the narrative. But when he’s there, he is pretty much perfect for the role.

The Ruling Class - Peter O'Toole
It is extremely embarrassing to admit that I have not seen The Ruling Class, but alas, I have not. I cannot think of a movie that has been on my “To See” list for a longer time than this one – probably dating back to high school – but somehow, despite my having rented it several times (back when there were video stores), I never actually got around to seeing it. One of these days, I will.

Overlooked: Despite being nominated in the supporting categories star Charles Grodin did not get nominated for The Heartbreak Kid. The film, directed by Elaine May, is kind of a reverse version of The Graduate (which May must have had perverse pleasure in making, since her former comedy partner was Mike Nichols). Grodin’s performance as a man who marries a woman so he can have sex with her, and then leaves her for someone he meets on their honeymoon is hilarious in many ways. But when I think of his performance, I think of that final scene, where he now has everything he wanted, and realizes just how empty he still feels. Grodin should have been nominated here.

Best Actress

1.    Cabaret  - Liza Minnelli (Winner)
Liza Minelli’s Sally Bowles is undeniably her greatest screen performance. During the course of the movie, she proves why she is was at one time one of the greatest musical performers in the movies – she has her mother’s abilities, but in an era where they weren’t in demand as much. Her Bowles is heartless and nihilistic – capable of putting on a front of tenderness and emotion, but incapable of actually feeling anything. I don’t think I can honestly say I have ever loved another of Minelli’s performances, but I certainly do love this one.

2.    Sounder  - Cicely Tyson
Cicely Tyson’s performance in Sounder really is the heart and soul of the film. When her husband is arrested and taken away, it is her steely determination to keep things running that keeps her family alive and well. Yes, this is the type of role that too many great actresses are stuck playing – the devoted wife and mother – but Tyson makes it her own, and her subtle performance is quietly inspiring and heartbreaking.

3.    The Emigrants - Liv Ullmann
Liv Ullman is one of the great actresses in screen history. Only nominated for two Oscars in her career (the other being for Face to Face, one of the rare Ingmar Bergman films I have not seen), and that’s sad because of all the great performances she has delivered – ones better than this one to be sure (like Scenes from a Marriage, Persona, Shame, Autumn Sonata, The Passion of Anna, etc). There is nothing at all wrong with her performance in this movie – it is excellent, and the quiet soul of the film. But it isn’t as good as what she has done in other film.

Lady Sings the Blues  - Diana Ross
Diana Ross won over critics with her performance as Billie Holliday in this biopic – no easy feat, considering how much critics usually mock singers turned actors. The movie itself seems to be a typical musical biopic about a tortured and tormented star who falls into drug addiction, which explains why I haven’t seen it yet. They make that movie ever couple of years after all.

Travels with My Aunt  - Maggie Smith
I like Maggie Smith – love her two Oscar winning performances in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and California Suite, and even though she does pretty much the same thing in everything she’s in now, and has since Gosford Park, she is such a delight as the wise cracking old lady, I don’t much care. But nothing I have ever read suggests I need to see Travels with My Aunt – despite the fact that it is directed by George Cukor. Maybe if it plays on TCM one day and I’m bored.

Overlooked: Despite the fact that she won the Best Actress prize at Cannes, Susannah York never had a chance at being nominated for her performance in Robert Altman’s Imagesbecause the film barely got released in major markets that year, and then went away until a few years later when it played a few other places. That’s sad, because although Images is not one of Altman’s masterpieces, it is certainly a fine film – and contains a brilliant performance by York – as a woman who is cracking up, hallucinating, and will eventually commit murder. York was robbed of an opportunity to be nominated for this film – but let’s be honest – it probably wouldn’t have happened anyway.


Best Supporting Actor

1.    The Godfather - Al Pacino
Looking at the film now, you have to admit that Pacino SHOULD have been nominated alongside Brando in the lead category. After all, I think Pacino has the most screen time, and the movie is more about his journey for a moral man who wants nothing to do with his father’s business, into the head of the crime family (his downfall is completed in The Godfather Part II, making the third installment, however much fun it is, unnecessary). But Pacino wasn’t a star in 1972, so he was relegated into the supporting category – which he damn well SHOULD have won. It’s embarrassing that it took them 20 more years (and a film like Scent of a Woman) to give him an Oscar.

2.    The Godfather - Robert Duvall
I’ve always had a soft spot for Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen. He’s the Corleone son who isn’t a biological son, so while he is as smart as any of the Corleone boys, he never quite gets the respect of the rest of them. He is excellent in the movie, almost the quiet moral compass of the film, who tries to keep things from getting out of hand, even if he knows no one will actually listen to him. Duvall is a great actor, who had a great career (including an Oscar win 11 years later for Tender Mercies), but this is still one of his finest moments.

3.    Cabaret  - Joel Grey (Winner)

Perhaps Joel Grey only won the Oscar for Cabaret because the three co-stars of The Godfather split the vote. Yet, you cannot deny just how great Grey is in this film as the demented Master of Ceremonies, who keeps the merriment coming in the Cabaret as everything outside of it begins to fall apart. It is a great performance, and a worthy winner – even if I think there happen to be two worthier performances nominated this year.

4.    The Godfather - James Caan
James Caan’s Sonny is perhaps the finest performance of his long career – and his easily the one he is most identified with. His Sonny is a hothead, never bothering to think things through to the end, and see what should be clear to him – which is what ultimately leads to his doom. It is a great performance, by a great actor, and deserving of a nomination – even if it is only the third best supporting actor performance in the film.

5.    The Heartbreak Kid - Eddie Albert
I love Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid (one of the painful experiences in recent memory was watching the Farrelly brothers god awful remake of it), and Eddie Albert, as Cybil Sheppard’s rich daddy who cannot possibly say no to his little girl, is hilarious. It’s not his fault he was nominated in the strongest category of the year, so he ends up in the fifth spot by default.

Overlooked: I have already sung the film’s praises, but I do think that Ned Beatty should have been singled out for his performance in Deliverence. This was Beatty’s debut film, and as a film debut, few actors made a more memorable one. We all know the “Scream like a pig scene” – which tough to watch, and must have been tough to shoot for Beatty, but the rest of his performance is excellent as well. The entire cast of Deliverence is good – but I think Beatty was the best.


Best Supporting Actor

1.    The Heartbreak Kid - Jeannie Berlin
I’m not sure why director Elaine May cast her own daughter to play the role of the annoying wife who Charles Grodin’s character simply must sleep with – so he marries her because she’s saving herself – and then just as quickly feels the need to flee. Yet, whatever it was, Berlin is absolutely hilarious in the role. She goes for broke, threatening to go over the top at times, but never quite does. She sells her character, and delivers a wonderful comic performance – with an edge of anger, grief and sadness as well. A great performance.

2.    Butterflies Are Free  - Eileen Heckart (Winner)

Since I haven’t seen three of the nominated performances, it’s hard for me to be too hard on the Academy for picking Heckart’s performance in Butterflies Are Free as their winner. After all, it is a fine performance, where she recreates her Broadway role as an overprotective mother of a blind man, who just wants to see him happy. But the only reason why anyone watches Butterflies Are Free anymore is because they are an Oscar completest (it’s the only reason I watched it anyway), and while I was mildly amused by the film, and the performance, there really is nothing here worth giving an Oscar for.

Fat City  - Susan Tyrrell
I love the films of John Huston, but the man directed so many in his nearly 50 year career, that I have not had a chance to see them all yet. This is probably the next on my list of his films for me to see – I do love boxing movies, and Jeff Bridges and Stacy Keach – so I’ll get to this one – and probably sooner rather than later.          

Pete 'n' Tillie  - Geraldine Page
It took Page until her 8th nomination to finally win an Oscar – in 1985 at the age of  61 and just two years before her death for the sad Horton Foote scripted drama The Trip to Bountiful. That’s a fine performance, although I prefer her role as the alcoholic actress in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962). I think director Martin Ritt is solid, and I do like Walter Matthau, and to a lesser extent Carol Burnett, but I have to say very little has ever made me think I need to see this one. Sorry.

The Poseidon Adventure  - Shelley Winters
The 1970s saw a number of big budget, star filled “disaster” movies – and I’ve seen some of them (like The Towering Inferno and Airport), and what I saw doesn’t exactly make me want to go back and watch the rest. I do love Shelley Winters though but if the release of the remake of (called Poseidon) a few years ago wasn’t enough to get me to see this, I’m not sure what will.

Overlooked: Just two year before, Bob Rafelson made Five Easy Pieces, a brilliant movie that the Academy ate up – and he followed that up in 1972 with a movie they ignored. They at least should have nominated Ellen Burstyn for her great performance in The King of Marvin Gardens -  an underrated movie. The film contains three great performances – a rare quiet one by Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern as his scheming brother, and Ellen Burstyn’s as an aging beauty queen, who is realizing she is over the hill, and after competing with her stepdaughter for sexual superiority, eventually concedes – although this sets up the film’s ending. The film is surreal, dark, funny, violent and very, very strange. Burstyn is brilliant in it – it’s one of the oft-nominated actresses best performances, although perhaps in a film this weird, it’s unsurprising she wasn’t nominated.

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