31 Days of Oscar: 1973 – A Very Good Year

By Jack Deth

Greetings, all and sundry! When an opportunity arises to indulge in a favorite pasttime. Wax nostalgic about the ins and outs and nuts and bolts of a specific time in cinematic history. Its awards and rewards. You graciously accept and give it your best effort. To that end, I would like to thank Paula for chance to shine some light on…

1973: A Very Good Year in Film

A year that created a lot of controversy as the war in Vietnam was finally winding down and the palette of tastes continued to swell and expand, allowing some well-established talent to prove their mettle, while young upstarts were given the chance to make their mark for future generations.

Best Picture 1974, clockwise from top: Winner THE STING; nominees CRIES AND WHISPERS, THE EXORCIST, A TOUCH OF CLASS, and AMERICAN GRAFITTI
Best Picture 1974, clockwise from top: Winner THE STING; nominees CRIES AND WHISPERS, THE EXORCIST, A TOUCH OF CLASS, and AMERICAN GRAFITTI

Ingmar Bergman weighed in with a familial tome, Cries and Whispers. Which would explore the world of sisters as one is bedridden and slowly deteriorating to cancer in late 1800s Stockholm. Wondrously, sometimes rawly, told in flashbacks of earlier times and sibling rivalry, as the sisters coalesce and slowly retreat and pull apart.

While the previous year’s heavy hitter, William Friedkin, exceeded all expectations. Bought the rights to the worldwide best seller, The Exorcist, and re-wrote the limitations of American Horror. In a film that pulls the audience in and takes them on a ride not soon forgotten. And a fledgling director named George Lucas gave his personal take on rites of manhood and cruising the strip on a warm summer night before college in American Graffiti. A cut in the can, near-documentary benchmark film that would launch countless careers.

Not to be outdone, and to prove that he still had it, Melvin Frank put together a trans-continental, high-end romantic comedy, A Touch of Class. That spans Europe and mixes lush backgrounds and scenery as an affair takes root and flourishes. Placed squarely opposite what many would wrongly perceive to be a forgettable medium-length, low-budget ode to changing times and morals from John G. Avildsen, Save The Tiger. Only to have the field rounded out by George Roy Hill and his offering, The Sting. Which had the trademark look and feel of an old Warner Brothers backlot gangster film. Though highly polished and superbly executed on Universal’s backlots. Brought to life by two of the most handsome and proven actors in Hollywood.

A heady brew, indeed. Five contenders, unique in their own ways, vying for the 1974 Best Picture Academy Award. With the shot callers and odds makers outside the Academy close to tossing their arms up in the air. As quality and story cancelled each other out for the most part. Perhaps, and perhaps not, revealing the value of large ad campaigns as ballots were cast. Not exactly a coin toss, but a process of taking in the myriad details and many memorable moments as a decision is made.

I can’t disagree that The Sting deserves the top slot. Hill directs masterfully with a practiced touch around well and often meticulously detailed sets that somehow always seem smaller than they appear. Not exactly cramped, but compact. Drawing attention to the two leads as they move and share space with a stalwart cast of veterans and soon-to-be-recognized talent. In a tale that boasts no weak spots. Moves fluidly and builds to a delightful payoff. Infinitely watchable. And re-watchable, as only a few key scenes are telegraphed ahead of time. And even those have a pleasant twist.

The category of Best Actor is just as difficult. With Marlon Brando, the odds-on favorite for his role as  American expatriate Paul in Last Tango in Paris. Still riding the crest of his role as Don Corleone in The Godfather and being re-introduced to a new generation of audiences. Brando plays an often unlikeable character, a bit too fascinated and fixated on sex. Under the helm of Bernardo Bertolucci. In a film more memorable for its intimate scenes than stunning dialogue.

Followed closely by Jack Nicholson. A soon-to-be household name after his roles in Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and Carnal Knowledge. It is in The Last Detail that Nicholson is allowed to push already legendary boundaries. Chew occasional scenery in scenes where he loses it. Keeping the faith as a believable career Navy NCO on a job few want, but needs to be done.Up-and-coming Al Pacino delivered a more than solid performance in Serpico. As New York policeman, Frank Serpico. A career-long honest cop who resisted the temptations of payoffs and worse. Becoming a pariah and shifted from precinct to precinct. Making notable cases, busts and arrests across the boroughs. While gathering information on bad cops and being denied a detective’s gold shield.

Staunch and stoic Jack Lemmon’s name on the ballot may have raised cursory eyebrows. An everyman’s actor just coming into his own. And his Harry Stoner in Save the Tiger has those quiet inner qualities writ large. As the head of a company which mass produces fashions seen on the catwalks of Paris, Milan and London. Suddenly stricken with hard times. In a film that would reveal Mr. Lemmon to be one of America’s great untapped dramatic talents. I’ve no doubt those cursory eyebrows were lifted a bit more with the addition of Robert Redford in The Sting. His often too-cautious Johnny Hooker is one of Redford’s best roles opposite Paul Newman. Though not what I would consider to be Oscar quality.

Many might have been surprised with Mr. Lemmon’s Oscar win for Best Actor, though I wasn’t. I knew his performance as mid-life crisis material Harry Stoner was special after just fifteen minutes of sitting in a near-empty matinee. And that the fix would be in as the final credits rolled. Few actors have been able to open up and reveal the heights and depths of their characters as Mr. Lemmon had. And would again in later films.

Best Actress 1974
Best Actress 1974, clockwise from top: Winner Glenda Jackson; nominees Barbara Streisand, Marsha Mason, Ellen Burstyn, and Joanne Woodward

Which made the selection of Best Actress only slightly less difficult. With fresh, aspiring faces mixed amongst veterans who always delivered more than was asked or required. With Joanne Woodward exploring and making her mark in fertile fields usually left for Gena Rowlands in Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams. As Rita, a wife on the verge of a nervous breakdown due to empty nest syndrome and wishes that she had married the young man she had a crush on ages ago. One of the first and better “What if?” films of the 1970s. Followed closely by Barbra Streisand’s post-WWII radical chic Katie in The Way We Were tangled up with Navy officer Redford in an “on-again, off-again” relationship under the deft touch of Sydney Pollack.

Offset by Marsha Mason’s hard luck Maggie Paul in Mark Rydell’s Cinderella Liberty. Doing whatever is necessary to her and her ten-year-old mulatto son’s heads above water in the Navy liberty port of Seattle, Washington. While a single mom in Georgetown (Washington DC), Chris MacNeil, played by nearly unknown Ellen Burstyn, copes with her daughter being possessed by Satan in The Exorcist.

Leaving Glenda Jackson several obstacles and egos to clear in her role as George Segal’s “other woman” in A Touch of Class. A nicely detailed return to the earlier sophisticated romantic comedies of 1950s and ’60s. Where wit, adult dialogue and lush sets and backdrops have equal weight with the leads’ chemistry. An odd, almost safe choice for Best Actress at first glance and by today’s standards, though Ms. Jackson and Mr. Segal make the idea of “love at first sight” appear elegant, if not effortless. Even between a divorcée and a married man.

Which brings us to Best Supporting Actors. With Jason Miller and his role as Father Damien in The Exorcist out in front. Mostly, I believe for his ability to respond so well to shock and fear amongst then cutting edge special effects technology and a child’s bedroom kept at below freezing temperatures. Followed close by John Houseman’s Professor Kingsfield in James Bridges’ The Paper Chase. Mr. Houseman made the most of his voice that could easily bounce off the back walls of any enclosed space. Along with enunciation, a near void of contractions to project and surround himself with the aura of omniscient invincibility to a classroom full of aspiring college students.

Leaving plenty of room for Vincent Gardenia to play with his role of old and wizened coach, “Dutch” Schnell, in Bang the Drum Slowly. Though tinged with tragedy, still one of the better baseball films around. And Mr. Gardenia makes the most of his role as the team’s Father Confessor, manager, and mother hen. With veteran Jack Gilford and young upstart Randy Quaid filling whatever space is left with their quiet brilliance. In Mr. Gilford’s case, it’s playing Jack Lemmon’s wise old sage and business partner Phil Green in Save the Tiger.Who, like Mr. Lemmon’s Harry Stoner, just wants another season, but won’t condone arson and insurance money to do it. And Randy Quaid’s oversized, introspective, something of a dullard young sailor, Meadows, makes more than the most of each scene opposite Jack Nicholson. While on their way to Norfolk and its brig for petty theft from a Base Exchange.

A very contentious field. A grand master of projection with Mr. Houseman. Opposite a grounded character actor in Mr. Gardenia and two students of the “Less is more” contingent. A tough choice for Best Supporting Actor, but a proper one, as Mr. Houseman’s haughty, eloquent Professor Kingsfileld in The Paper Chase is awarded the prize.

With ladies demanding equal time. The nominees for Best Supporting Actress are more diverse and eclectic. Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon is double-tapped, with Madeline Kahn’s Trixie Delight and Tatum O’Neal’s Addie Loggins, who may or may not be con man Ryan O’Neal’s Moses Pray’s daughter. Busily wrapping any and all in her way around her little finger. While Trixie offers fresh and often insightful comic relief.

While near complete unknown Linda Blair delivers above and beyond as an adolescent girl with familial problems experiencing a close encounter of the inexplicable kind in The Exorcist. While Sylvia Sidney excels as Woodward’s aged and infirm mother Mrs. Pritchett in Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams. Leaving Candy Clark’s bombshell blonde turn as a tempting Marilyn Monroe beauty behind the wheel of a classic white T-Bird in Lucas’ American Graffiti.

The award of Best Supporting Actress to Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon came as no real surprise. Though her voice may have grated a time or two. Ms. O’Neal showed great potential and ease of execution in a familial, very family-friendly film. The sum of which reflected Mr. Bogdanovich’s “sit back and let it happen” school of direction.

Overall Consensus:

I’ve long believed that the 1970s were the last great era for films. With many directors taking a path away from the slowly stagnating Hollywood “system” and indulging in ventures that would make or break them and their reputations. And 1973 is a banner year for those pioneers. Who were able to find the talent and money and put it all on the line. As with John Alvidson and Jack Lemmon collaborating in what could and should have been a just under two hour personal ode to changing times and morals that reaped enormous rewards. Especially for screenwriter, Steve Shagan. And just being recognized Marvin Hamlisch and his minimalist score for Save the Tiger.

Add to the mix a young unknown named George Lucas given a fistful of money to start a project, choose his own cast of unknowns who would find fame in later films, shoot through the nights, and cut the film in the can. And start all over again for consecutive nights. While proven directors like William Friedkin and George Roy Hill are given wherewithal to run their films their way. Even if the former’s project, The Exorcist, rubbed many the wrong way at first viewing, and the latter’s The Sting, the second collaboration of Messieurs Newman and Redford, is a superior, cast-driven long con and period piece.

Taken altogether, 1973 was a watershed for directors taking the less-used path. And actors, cinematographers, arrangers, musicians, set designers, and wardrobe technicians applying new ideas and swinging for the fences.

Making it a very good year for films!