A New Year brings many things. Cold weather. Occasional snow. The Super Bowl. Worries about taxes. And that selection of works from the previous year’s effort in regard to cinematic entertainment known as the Academy Awards. The celebration of the “be all and end all” that is the magic of Tinseltown.
With the toils of 1975 fuzzily reflected in the tastes and perspectives of what felt like the final year of pulling up from the nosedive, ennui and la cafard created by Vietnam. Comedies in abundance. Woody Allen flexing his intellectual muscles with Love And Death on one side. To an off-the-wall New Wave import, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, adapted from the massively popular “audience participation” stage play. Dramas would also score high with Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, and Antonioni’s The Passenger. Making room for conspiracy thriller Three Days of the Condor by Sidney Pollack. And science fiction taking a roller coaster ride with Bryan Forbes adapting Ira Levin’s high-end The Stepford Wives. To David Cronenberg’s creepy They Came From Within. And the no-budget take on Harlan Ellison’s post-apocalyptic narrative, A Boy And His Dog, filling those more base tastes.
An eclectic year to say the least, with proven masters doing things their own way, while making room for just-starting-out talent, who would be household names in later years, going against established convention. Not an easy year for Academy voters, with a plethora of personal tales, and a noted lack of established musicals and other hugely-budgeted studio “epics” to be whittled down to an easily manageable number.
The offerings of 1975 would also have a Wild Card, a change to the long-standing paradigm, ramrodded by a young upstart named Stephen Spielberg. Released during the summer and added to the deck of contenders by tremendous reviews and popular demand. An intentionally made and executed “Blockbuster” by the name of Jaws.
Having perused, assembled and critiqued the films brought to the forefront during 1975. I’ve decided to lay out my offering very much as I had done for our hostess Paula a couple of years ago, and present for your approval:
The 48th Academy Awards: Old vs. New. With A Twist!
Which began with a further separation of the new from the old. With three offerings vying for Best Picture that could fall into the category of “personal projects.” The first being a film adaptation of the stage play derived from Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. A property whose rights were purchased by Kirk Douglas, who couldn’t find the right people, then lateraled over to his son, Michael, who could. Raw, relatively young, and unknown talent, who had been working out of the limelight and consistently on smaller projects, were finally given their chances to shine.
Followed closely by a project no one saw coming. Based on an actual slipshod, slapdash Brooklyn bank heist gone bad. Which turned into a rather tense hostage situation during one of New York’s hottest, most humid late afternoon and evening. Dog Day Afternoon remained an enigma to me for a long time, the actual event occurring on the day I spent in transit to Lackland Air Force Base to begin Basic Training, which kept me far too busy for the ensuing eight weeks.
While Robert Altman created an intertwined tale amongst a small ensemble wrapped around then-contemporary country music that still focused on the last vestiges of its staples: Drinkin’, Drivin’, Divorce, and Despair in Nashville.
Offset by an Old School, resplendently costumed period piece by a proven, some thought eccentric veteran. Barry Lyndon, and what some critics had declared, “a big budgeted, Roger Corman film.” Jaws.
Kind of a contentious group with no clear-cut immediate “slamdunk” winner. Each of the five contenders are unique in their own ways. With the top two nearly neck-and-neck in storytelling, through their exceptional anti-heroic lead actors, who had faced off in previous years. Surrounded by beat-up, worn-looking sets, and sweltering Brooklyn humidity inside and occasionally outside a small, stifling bank branch.
Or wide open spaces and bright Oregon sunshine. The decision boils down to delivery. And those chosen did deliver. Jaws had the summertime shocks, thrills, suspense and a superbly-edited, often-finicky “McGuffin,” intermixed with shooting stars, forgotten World War II Naval history, and a satisfying taste of future greatness. Where Nashville and Barry Lyndon excelled in costumes and telling their tales at sedate, unhurried paces, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest quietly pulls out stops very early on. And allows the pent up for too long, restrictive genius that is Jack Nicholson to reach inside and provide the grist for many scenery chewing scene. When not verbally creating a tense inning of a baseball game in the Common Room’s just turned off television. Mr. Nicholson goes deep inward. Tamping down explosive emotions and outright “Push Me Pull You” angst and anger towards his über-nemesis, Louise Fletcher’s ever-calm and smiling Nurse Ratched.
Cuckoo’s Nest was also contended with Dog Day Afternoon, a film that seethes with the sweaty claustrophobia of a botched bank heist, and Al Pacino playing in a broader, more naïve, and confused thespian sandbox, and delivering in ways unimagined from earlier outings in The Panic In Needle Park and Serpico. And you have an idea of the weight of this momentous decision. With One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest taking the Oscar for Best Picture!
Which would bring about a more refined, and perhaps genteel, variation in regard for Best Director. A field with proven veteran talent and reputations for memorable work, leading off with Federico Fellini and his 1930s imported surreal and often otherworldly take on Italian fascism with Amarcord. To a fan of dubbed films, who leans more toward German, French and Japanese offerings, the Old Hand creates an intriguing, often-sumptuous, eye- and imagination-catching film, very worthy of note!
Not to be outdone by expatriate eccentric, Stanley Kubrick, who performs visual near-miracles in recreating his earlier mastery with special effects which catapulted 2001: A Space Odyssey into the stratosphere. By focusing on cameras, lighting, setting and splendiferous costuming with his opulent “Definition of the Genre” historic period piece, Barry Lyndon.
Closing the field of outriders with Robert Altman and his character-heavy and -driven Nashville, an early first glimpse into his usually fruitful “Stories Within a Story” and “Film Within a Film” niche, utilized so well in his later works, The Player and The Prairie Home Companion.
Giving the oddsmakers in and outside Hollywood a bit of “Old vs. New” agita. With Sidney Lumet for Dog Day Afternoon. Lumet was already a tried-and-true director of the off-beat and socially-conscious, character-driven milieu dating back to the 1950s with Twelve Angry Men. The Pawnbroker. Fail Safe. The Hill. And most recently, Serpico and Murder On The Orient Express. Holder of a long and storied pedigree dating back to the wild, halcyon, catch as catch can days of live television. Plus a reputation of creating a Hell of a lot with just a little, while being able to get exactly what’s needed, and more, from a long “A List” of actors and actresses for decades.
Up against wild child, Czech director, Milos Forman for Cuckoo’s Nest. A favorite of the just-burgeoning New Hollywood. Taking on an iconic, anti-heroic, anti-establishment tale. Populating it with the then-reigning King of Inward Anti-Heroics. And a substantial cast of soon-to-be-recognized comedic and dramatic talent. And let the chops fall where they may! Switching scenes from bland Institutional to splendid and gentle, mist-dappled valleys and mountains beyond, as part and parcel of one the most “personal” films of the 1970s!
A tough call…though a correct one. Where Mr. Lumet excels in claustrophobia, cramped quarters, confused issues, hectoring cops and sweat, Mr. Forman takes the long way around, moving at a sedate pace in introducing vast and varied characters,building a solid foundation, before throwing curveballs, courtesy of Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher! A Best Picture treat to take in and savor on a damp or unseasonable weekend afternoon. Just to be reminded about what standards were and how they were adhered to decades ago.
It would be another heavily wagered-upon and touted “Battle of The Bands” for Best Actor. Those vying it for included Maximillian Schell as death-camp-surviving industrialist Arthur Goldman, who is actually Erich Eichmann. His kidnapping from Manhattan by Israeli agents, and trial for war crimes during World War II in Arthur Hiller’s The Man In The Glass Booth. Based upon and adapted from Robert Shaw’s novel of the same name. Not exactly a “One Man Show,” but Mr. Schell is the focus of attention behind bulletproof glass, denying at every turn the prosecution, while going to extreme limits to force his accusers of his possible guilt. And their own! Very powerful stuff for 1975. Picking up where the earlier Judgment At Nuremberg left off, and turning a defensive mirror on his tormenters!
Creating a slight shift in “Fire for Effect” with the nomination of Walter Matthau as aging vaudeville, film and live television comedian Willy Clark, opposite perpetual comedian George Burns’ Al Lewis in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys. The premise is a reunion after decades of pursuing their own solo careers. An interesting “Where Are They Now?” concept. A range of other older comedians were considered to play Willy. After considering everyone from Red Skelton and Phil Silvers, who would have lost money on their deals, to Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Jack Benny (who had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer), Mr. Simon went younger and recruited Mr. Matthau, who delivered the sloppy, grouchy straight man with aplomb, and just the right amount of upstaging and jealousy against the unflappably content Burns.
Narrowed even further with veteran actor, James Whitmore in the film version of Give ’em Hell, Harry, the second installment of his famous “One Man Shows” trilogy (which had begun with Will Rogers’ USA, before finishing up with Bully, about Teddy Roosevelt). Having seen all three shows live at the Ford and Kennedy Center theaters, I can say that no one so smoothly or easily occupies a character, regardless of size, statute or range, like Whitmore. A visual metamorphosis takes place during five minutes of introduction and impromptu history, with a slight change in metering, diction and accent, along with subtle changes in carriage and posture. Then BOOM! Harry S. Truman is alive amongst period stage and set pieces to tell you of his life!
A wonderful evening’s entertainment, and a superb personal piece of work, that comes up short when placed opposite two heavy contenders reveling in giving life to such diverse, near-polar opposite characters. Mr. Nicholson’s Randle Patrick (R.P) McMurphy is a born schemer and surprisingly good gamer of “The System.” Exchanging psychiatric therapy for serious jail time on a corruption of a minor charge (something that might cause a small Twitter trend today), though he is completely unaware of the compartmentalization and machinations of his assigned institution. And its nexus of understated, yet understood power, the starched Nurse Ratched.
While Mr. Pacino’s hapless, confused and not-too-bright Sonny Wartzik displays tremendous Method skills at playing inwardly. Deftly and believably blocking out the mayhem and confusion he, and always underrated John Cazale as “Sal” Naturale, have created outside their own skins. A world of slowly-crumbling and fading options that seemed so effortless and easy. Robbing a bank to finance transgender surgery for Sonny’s pre-operative transsexual wife, Leon Shermer (superb Chris Sarandon).
Where Mr. Nicholson lords about an expanding world of his own creation, Pacino’s character’s scheme is dealt a mortal blow with the bank’s security guard’s panicked asthma attack, delivering a tale of “Murphy’s Law” based upon slowly-worsening true events. This narrative places Mr. Pacino in an enclosed and ever-narrowing environment, and a disadvantage at Oscar time. Both films deliver unexpected endings, but Cuckoo’s Nest secured the Best Actor Award for Mr. Nicholson!
Which makes the bevy of women vying for Best Actress much more straightforward. And noteworthy for its odd and eclectically narrow field of selectees. Bottom line, the field is not all that great compared to other years.
For those who fancy a foreign period piece at the hands of master, Francois Truffaut, there is Isabelle Adjani in The Story of Adele H. She plays Adele Hugo, daughter of writer Victor Hugo, and the film follows her obsessive and unrequited love for a French officer Lt. Albert Pinson (Bruce Robinson). Which spirals slowly to her downfall. Intriguing to follow? Yes. Sumptuous to look at? Absolutely! Though a bit long and uneventful in the dialogue and plot departments.
Glenda Jackson is added to the list for her delivery of Hedda Gabler, in a unique and singular film adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda. Her nominaton is offset by Carol Kane, playing part of a superb turn of last century’s New York Jewish émigré ghetto slice of poverty, morals and assimilation and life period piece, Hester Street. Ms. Kane plays Gill, a newly-married immigrant contending with a cheating, later-abusive husband. A better life for her and her son. Deciding how much of her heritage is up for negotiation in the process of assimilating. And how badly she wants a new life. All under the touch of Joan Micklin Silver, who delivers the goods as surprisingly well as she can.
Leaving room for a bit of glitz and whimsy: Ann Margaret as Nora, the status-obsessed mother of Tommy, in Ken Russell’s film adaptation of The Who’s rock opera. An odd and infectious star-studded, often over-the-top, ode to brand-name “Creative Consumerism” of the 1970s.
Leaving the field wide open for Louise Fletcher to blitz through as the smilingly malevolent Nurse Ratched, whose job it is to keep the new addition to her serene universe, R.P. McMurphy (Nicholson), in line, medicated, and under control, in Cuckoo’s Nest. I could wax long and nostalgic about Ms. Fletcher’s superlative work, which covers most of the negative emotional field. With the unnatural twist of Ms. Fletcher never cracking a full-blown smile or laugh. She maintains the calm, unemotional delivery of a Stepford Wife, even as she verbally destroys patient Billy Bibbitt (Brad Dourif) in front of others after his successful and illegal tryst:
That, friends and neighbors is what the mystique of the thespian arts are all about! The ability to be so comfortably and universally despised while bearing true allegiance to character, and then enjoy the fruits of that labor!
With the heavy lifting out of the way, the Best Supporting Actor and Actress selections and awardees could have stood some extra attention to detail. George Burns’ win for his work as funny man emeritus Al Lewis in The Sunshine Boys seems meant as more of a Lifetime Achievement Award than a reward for caliber of work.
Especially when one considers Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbitt in Cuckoo’s Nest, or Chris Sarandon and his utterly hapless take on Leon Shermer in Dog Day Afternoon, while veteran character actors Burgess Meredith and Jack Warden prove their mettle with the former’s Harry Greener in The Day of the Locust, and the latter’s perpetually cuckolded Lester Karpf, whose wife, Felicia (Lee Grant) is occasionally bedding Warren Beatty’s character in Shampoo.
Which leaves an equally surprising venue for the ladies In attendance, with Lee Grant winning for Shampoo. Plying her smolderingly sensual Felicia Karpf opposite two contenders in Robert Altman’s Nashville, Lily Tomlin and Ronnee Blakley, Sylvia Miles in an adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely, and Brenda Vaccaro in an adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s Once Is Not Enough.
Now we get to the Other Good Stuff and The Twist.
Best Original and Adapted Screenplays. With Dog Day Afternoon topping Amarcord, And Now My Love, Lies My Father Told Me and Shampoo. And major kudos to Frank Pierson for taking the grist from a Life magazine article, The Boys In the Bank. Perform noble due diligence with dramatic dashes of expansion, exposition and poetic license to create a physically steamy, cramped and twisty potboiler!
Also a tip of the hat to Robert Towne and Warren Beatty for their nominated work in Shampoo. Their slice of West Coast contemporary culture is a well-cast and executed piece of a-day-in-the-life comedy, even with its small character flaws.
To no one’s surprise, Cuckoo’s Nest walked away with Best Adapted Screenplay. The source material originated with life-long West Coast cultural icon Ken Kesey. His written works and personality were considered a challenge throughout the 1960s and 70s. Very high marks to Bo Goldman and Laurence Hauben for taking on the daunting task of creating a verbal, sometimes physical, dueling match between two rock-solid, immovable forces, and populating it with characters who may be “crazy,” but are far from insane!
Even more notable were the other nominees of equal quality and stature. Two from past masters, Walter Huston and Gladys Hill’s The Man Who Would Be King, and Stanley Kubrick and his mercurial work with the morals, mores and etiquette surrounding Barry Lyndon. Also Ruggero Maccari and Dino Risi’s teamwork in Profumo di donna, and Neil Simon with The Sunshine Boys.
Beauty should also be rewarded, and I was thrilled to see Barry Lyndon winning Best Costume Design. It’s an opulent feast for the eyes, with crazy ridiculous, though fully warranted, attention to detail from Milena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Soderlund! A most worthy feat opposite the real last hurrah for this category in this decade: Edith Head’s magic touch with the two swashbucklers in The Man Who Would Be King — Khyber Pass shabbiness and elegance, The Four Musketeers and excellent yeoman work from Ron Talsky and Yvonne Blake, flattering work from Ray Aghayan and Bob Mackie in Funny Lady, along with Karin Erskine and Henry Noremark and their mystical work in The Magic Flute.
Now for The Twist and 800-pound elephant in the room: the capabilities of carefully structured and executed “Summer Blockbuster” Jaws and its heavily television pedigreed director, Steven Spielberg. Can an outsider contend with the established heavy-hitters?
Judging from the film’s numerous nominations. From Best Picture (not a chance in Hell coming out of the gate!) to its win for Best Film Editing opposite Dede Allen for Dog Day Afternoon, renowned Russell Lloyd for The Man Who Would Be King, newcomer Richard Chew for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Don Guidiice for Three Days of the Condor…
…to an Oscar for Best Sound Mixing courtesy to John Carter and company, vs. Bite the Bullet, Funny Lady, The Hindenburg and The Wind and the Lion. And Best Original Score, via John Williams opposite Bite the Bullet, Cuckoo’s Nest, The Wind and the Lion, and Birds Do It, Bees Do It.
…yes, an outsider can win. With a superlative offering. A cast, crew and technicians swinging for the fences. And connecting! Beginning to drive a narrow wedge in categories that are not regularly raved about a week after the annual festivities, though have grown in stature, popularity and importance in later years,
1975 was a banner year for entertainment, with more of the muscle and sinew of “New Hollywood” making themselves known against solid and stoic Masters of the previous generation, confidently content to go toe to toe and collect coup. Perhaps not in the Top Five, though more than enough to keep them vibrant and viable for the next round, a year or two hence.
While quietly giving credence to the savvy and willingness to gamble from new names and backers unknown in years before, to go against the norm to see what happens
Were there surprises? Certainly, though also some signs of playing safe, for instance with George Burns’ win. And Ann Margaret’s nomination for Tommy remains confusing. Overall however, an all-around great year for film!
Agree? Disagree? Comments are graciously welcome, as the floor is open for discussion!