I’m going to start picking what should have won the Oscar in a given year. At first, I thought I should provide a lengthy description of why I’m doing this, but that seems pointless: I’m doing it because I think it’s kind of fun to think about. The Academy Awards are pointless and infuriating, but their existence prompts conversations about movies, which is basically what this is. These are argument starters. Here are some criteria:
- I choose the year using this random number generator. I’m starting with 1970, just because, and it’s unlikely I’ll go any further back.
- I’m limiting myself to the big three categories: Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress, though I might mention an oversight here or there.
- I’ll be referring to (and in some cases will be inspired by) Danny Peary’s wonderful but sadly out of print book Alternate Oscars, in which he does what I’m doing only in detail and better. All of Peary’s choices are listed here.
- I’ll be sticking to five nominees in each category, no matter how it actually played out. I still insist this is the best way to do it, and Mark Harris offers a more persuasive argument than I can.
- My choices will be neither entirely objective or subjective. I might pick something because it captured the zeitgeist, or I might pick something because it’s an unquestioned classic. Or not. The academy has whims and so do I. But time has shown us that Out of Africa and Gandhi are boring but “important” movies that no one talks about anymore while Dazed and Confused and Memento are awesome and increasingly relevant, so I’m in a better position to judge that than they were.
- In other words, I have hindsight – as I do below, I might be political in giving the award to someone who gives a knockout performance over someone who will be frequently nominated.
- Just to narrow things a bit, I’m going to stick to American or English releases, and keep “foreign film” in its own category. The Academy is weird about this, as you’ll see below, in which two actresses from foreign films were nominated, and one of those foreign films (Face to Face) clearly could have been a favorite for best picture. I don’t really have a rationale for doing this, it just seems like it makes things less complicated. If a film has American or British actress or an American or British production company/distribution (like The Artist or Life is Beautiful), I might reconsider.
With that said, here’s my first year: 1976
- Their pick: Faye Dunaway, Network
- Nominees: Marie-Christine Barrault (Cousine, Cousin), Talia Shire, (Rocky), Sissy Spacek (Carrie), Liv Ullman (Face to Face)
- My pick: Sissy Spacek, Carrie
- Nominees: Geraldine Chaplin (Welcome to L.A.), Faye Dunaway (Network), Audrey Hepburn (Robin and Marian), Talia Shire (Rocky)
Dunaway’s power-tripping and amoral programming genious Diana Christiansen takes her sly sexiness as Bonnie Parker and turns it up to eleven. She’s at once intensely masculine, hopeless neurotic, and dangerously feminine. Yet while it’s a career-defining role, its as much a product of the meaty dialogue she gets to deliver and the world she inhabits as Dunaway’s performance itself. Dunaway was best at roles that required to be loud and theatrical, and she would never have a role like this again; Mommie Dearest would present her most magnificent piece of over-acting. In this case, she’s a close second. I choose Spacek because it’s so much the opposite: she invests the wilting flower protagonist of Carrie with equal parts silent strength and immature confusion. Spacek seems so out of place in the “scream queen” world of contemporary horror movies that Carrie can be viewed as a coming-of-age story and a domestic drama. In the years since, with several attempts to remake Carrie, all have existed in Spacek’s shadow.
Especially in contrast to the bold, socially adept teenagers around her, Spacek seems out of time and place. Without Spacek’s grounding performance, the movie completely gives itself over to Brian De Palma’s trademark stylistic excesses and leering voyeurism. So many of Spacek’s scenes are silent, which means she creates her character through scared glances and scary reactions, particularly in the bloody finale. As the film is careening and split-screening wildly around her, her sensitive take seems at odds with the movie she’s in, yet still stands out.
- Their Pick: Peter Finch, Network
- Nominees: Robert De Niro (Taxi Driver), Giancarlo Giannini (Seven Beauties), William Holden (Network), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky)
- My Pick: Sylvester Stallone, Rocky
- Nominees: David Carradine, Bound for Glory; Robert De Niro, (Taxi Driver),William Holden, (Network), Walter Matthau (The Bad News Bears)
Whenever Peter Finch’s Howard Beale appears in Network, he eats the movie – everything changes because of his prophetic, raving pronouncements. Yet Finch’s performance is clearly a supporting one (William Holden gets much more screen time); the Academy clearly elevated it because Finch had just died and they wanted to reward what was an iconic role. In my alternate universe, Finch wins Best Supporting Actor (sorry Jason Robards, who was great), and we get one of the closest races in the history of the awards – Sly Stallone vs. Robert De Niro. Both actors have roles of a lifetime as outcast losers who figure out a way in, though to drastically different effects. Both were New York actors in gritty, urban dramas. It could go either way, and I’m tempted to give it a tie. But while De Niro is obviously the better actor, I’m going to do a little politicking for Stallone. Also, in retrospect, De Niro would have several more opportunities to win this, and had won a supporting Oscar before in both a real and alternate universe for The Godfather Part II.
At this point, critics were comparing Stallone to Brando and Tango and Cash was years away – part of that was because of the way Sly was so understated and sweet. He lacks the lazy, slurring bombast that he would bring to “Cobra.” We like Rocky because he’s nice to caged dogs, sings along with street singers, and is a terrible loan shark. His scenes with Talia Shire are terrific; he would never have this kind of chemistry again with anyone, male or female. The final fight scene is so rewarding simply because it’s impossible to think of a character we’d rather root for. Part of this has to do with the fact that Stallone wrote the movie and refused to let anyone else play the role. Even in the later Rocky movies, Stallone would never again be this good; most of those performances are something of an increasingly ridiculous parody of this one. But what remains one of the most satisfying sports movies ever made is almost completely due to the success of its writer and star.
- Their Pick: Rocky
- Nominees: All The President’s Men, Bound for Glory, Network, Taxi Driver
- My Pick: Taxi Driver
- Nominees: All The President’s Men, The Bad News Bears, Network, Rocky
As I’ve argued, Rocky was the product of its writer and star, and I realize this downplays the achievement of director John G. Avildsen, who would only re-approach this success when he remade the movie as The Karate Kid. But Rocky recycles urban tropes in an adequate way more than does much interesting with them: the film succeeds because of winning performances, a great soundtrack, and a great final fight. The nomination should have been the award. Of my five nominated films, The Bad News Bears is superior as a sports movie.
Therefore, I’m going with Taxi Driver. As great as De Niro is, it’s Martin Scorsese’s vision that captures a city, a moment, and a character. Whether with obvious visual language, such as when Travis hopelessly woos a girl on the phone and the camera veers to an empty hallway, or in the subtle moments where Travis is watching television and thinking God-knows-what, Scorsese films the ugly underside as no one ever has. Filtered through Travis’ madness, it’s a dark place that needs saving. We’re never sure how to deal with him – hope for his salvation, or turn him into the cops. Taxi Driver exemplifies the “new cinema” of the 70s in its darkness. The key to Travis’ madness is not that he looks in the mirror and asks, “You talkin’ to me?” It’s the next line – “I’m the only one here.” Taxi Driver captures that here, the scary milieu that either stimulates Travis’ madness or is a product of it; it’s to Scorsese’s credit that we’re never quite sure.
- B.S Actor – Them: Jason Robards, All the Presidents Men Me: Peter Finch, Network
- B.S. Actress – Them: Beatrice Straight, Network; Jodie Foster, Taxi Driver
- Stallone’s rival, Arnold Schwarzenegger, could have been nominated for B.S. Actor for his warm performance in the underrated Stay Hungry. So could Richard Pryor, in his best comedic performance in a movie for Silver Streak. But this was a strong year for supporting performances (Jason Robards, Ned Beatty, Laurence Olivier, Burt Young, and Burgess Meredith – Beatty is the only one I’d boot, just because he’s only in the movie for five minutes.)
- While Haskell Wexler deservedly won Best Cinematography for Bound for Glory (a sadly forgotten movie), it’s ridiculous that Gordon Willis wasn’t even nominated for All The President’s Men.
- As good as Jerry Goldsmith’s score for The Omen was, it should not have beaten Bernard Herrmann’s for Taxi Driver.
- It’s just plain silly that Martin Scorsese wasn’t even nominated for Best Director, which is why don’t even consider it as at a category.
- Danny Peary: The Front, De Niro, Spacek
- Golden Globes, Drama: Rocky, Finch, Dunaway
- National Society of Film Critics: All the Presidents Men, De Niro, Spacek