Academy in Review: The 1970s

Picture it: you live in 1970s New York City. You work all day on Wall Street and spend your weekends at Studio 54 and the other disco clubs, but what to do at night? Go to the movies, of course, and in this decade, the choices are unlike anything your parents used to watch.

If the 1980s were defined by middling bourgeois taste and safe choices, the 1970s represented an explosion of creativity and boldness that hasn’t been matched since in the Hollywood studio system. Directors took control of the lots as studio executives lost their grip on projects all across Los Angeles. Indie films rose up to occupy arthouses in big cities, foreign films had entrenched themselves as a regular part of theatrical programming, and box office receipts reached new heights. 

There’s a startling number of classics and masterpieces that were nominated in this era, and the list of bad films nominated is extremely brief. Let’s look at the nominees:

Top 5 Best Picture Nominees of the 1970s

  1. Cries and Whispers (1973) – Ingmar Bergman’s haunting and deeply mournful story of sisters confronting each other and their painful memories as one of them dies from cancer was his biggest hit in the United States, grossing over a million dollars. It broke barriers by becoming only the fourth foreign-language film in history to be nominated for Best Picture along with four other nominations, ultimately winning for Best Cinematography in honor of Sven Nykvist’s incredible use of the colors red and white. 
  1. Nashville (1975) – America has never been more perfectly captured on film than in Robert Altman’s magnum opus, which weaves together the lives of two dozen people over the course of five days leading up to a concert for a presidential candidate. It’s damn near impossible to highlight an MVP, but Best Supporting Actress nominee Ronee Blaklee’s sorrowful and fragile country music star Barbara Jean steals the show. Nashville ultimately won Best Original Song for Keith Carradine’s “I’m Easy”.
  1. Barry Lyndon (1975) – Every film student’s favorite auteur Stanley Kubrick made his best film in this historical drama about a sociopathic Irish rogue who marries a widow to rise in British society after fighting in the Seven Years’ War. Exquisitely constructed, the film took home prizes for its musical score, cinematography, costume design, and set design. Despite criticism about the deliberate hollowness of Ryan O’Neal’s acting and the detached storytelling, the film’s reputation has grown over the decades.
  1. Jaws (1975) – If it wasn’t obvious by now, 1975 had the greatest Best Picture lineup in history. Steven Spielberg’s gigantic hit that birthed the term “blockbuster”, Jaws went from barely surviving a nightmarish production to redefining American studio filmmaking by breaking every single financial record in the book. The film took home Oscars for John Williams’s iconic musical score, Verna Field’s masterclass editing showcase, and for the incredible sound mixing. It’s a tried-and-true classic that still frightens us all. 
  1. Chinatown (1974) – The truth is, there might not be a more perfect script in Hollywood history this side of Some Like It Hot. Written by Robert Towne, this neo-noir mystery about a shadowy conspiracy revolving water in California was directed flawlessly by Roman Polanski and starred a never better Jack Nicholson. One of the grimmest tragedies in American cinema, Chinatown was unfortunate to come out the same year as The Godfather Part II, ultimately winning 1 of its 11 nominations for Original Screenplay.

Honorable Mentions: Cabaret (1972),  The Godfather Parts I & II (1972/1974), The Conversation (1974),  Network (1976), Annie Hall (1977)

Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal in Love Story (1970)

Bottom 5 Best Picture Nominees of the 1970s

  1. Love Story (1970) – Still one of the highest grossing films in history, if adjusted for inflation, this torrid and tragic tale of young college students who fall in love before the girl’s untimely death of a mysterious disease that makes her look like she was attacked by a Revlon makeup booth has had its reputation dim over the years. Its final line is a perfect summary of the sappy, manipulative trash the audience suffers through. The Academy must’ve been indifferent too, since it only won Best Original Score. 
  1. Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) – A bloated relic from the 1960s when Hollywood was still obsessed with gigantic historical epics, this recreation of the final years of the last Tsar and Tsarina of Russia suffers from several problems. Chief among them is the fact that the lead actors have no chemistry, but even more importantly, the film is a clear attempt to make a David Lean epic without guidance from Lean himself. The film won Oscars for its costumes and production, but this film is only a faded memory in Academy history.
  1. Airport (1970) – The mother of all disaster movies, Airport was the final film by producer Ross Hunter for Universal Studios. Despite grossing a ton of money, this story of one really bad night for an airport involving a snowstorm, a plane stuck on the runway, and another plane with a suicidal bomber aboard is a dull and lifeless affair, taking more than an hour to build up a forgettable cast of characters (including an Oscar-winning Helen Hayes) before it ends predictably in a boring fashion. 
  1. Midnight Express (1978) – This highly exaggerated story of an American college student who smuggled drugs out of Turkey before being caught and thrown into an Istanbul prison won Best Adapted Screenplay. A crime drama, it’s a shallow story that suffers from a deeply unlikable protagonist who’s meant to be sympathetic, and a recklessly xenophobic depiction of all Turkish people aimed at maximizing audience concern for the “hero”, which led to widespread criticism. It’s a blandly made, nasty film. 
  1. The Turning Point (1977) – This ballet drama starring Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft fails to deliver a compelling story, interesting characters, or even a good catfight between the two leads. This film is best known as a footnote in Academy history: it was nominated for 11 Oscars, but in a strange twist, the film went home without a single win. It’s proof that the real mystery here isn’t why it didn’t win any awards, but why it was nominated for any Oscars in the first place. 

Dishonorable Mentions: A Clockwork Orange (1971), A Touch of Class (1973), The Towering Inferno (1974), The Goodbye Girl (1977), Julia (1977)

Al Pacino and Robert Duvall in The Godfather: Part II (1974)

Oscars Trivia: 70s Edition

  1. The decade’s most nominated directors were Francis Ford Coppola and Bob Fosse, who were both nominated three times. Coppola won for his work on The Godfather Part II (1974), and Fosse won for his work on Cabaret (1972). No director won more than once this decade.
  1. The decade’s most nominated Best Actress were Jane Fonda and Glenda Jackson, who were both nominated four times, and who both won twice! Fonda won for Klute (1971) and Coming Home (1978), while Jackson won for Women in Love (1970) and A Touch of Class (1973). 
  1. The decade’s most nominated Best Actor were Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson, who were both nominated four times. Nicholson won for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), while Pacino would not win this decade. 
  1. The 1970s had a lot of infamous Oscar speeches, but chief among them was Sacheen Littlefeather declining Marlon Brando’s win on his behalf with a four page essay about the abuse of Native Americans in the film industry when he won Best Actor for The Godfather (1972). Citing recent events at Wounded Knee, the speech drew boos and applause from the crowd. 
  1. Two Best Actor winners this decade actually declined the prize: Brando as mentioned above, and George C. Scott who declined his win for Patton (1970), describing the Oscars as “a goddamn meat parade”. 
  1. The decade’s most awarded film was Cabaret (1972), which took home 8 prizes, including Best Director and Best Actress for Liza Minnelli. The film set a record for the most Oscar wins without winning Best Picture, which went to The Godfather (1972). 
  1. The highest grossing nominee of the decade was Star Wars (1977) which earned $775 million in its original theatrical run. The highest grossing winner of the decade was Rocky (1976), which grossed over $225 million.

THEY DIDN’T WIN? THEY WEREN’T NOMINATED?

  1. Gena Rowlands – One of America’s greatest thespians, Rowlands was nominated for her titanic, emotionally draining performance as a woman whose mental health spirals out of control in her husband John Cassavettes’ masterpiece of American cinema A Woman Under the Influence (1974), but lost to Ellen Burstyn for her turn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974). Rowlands eventually received an honorary Oscar in 2015.
  1. John Cassavettes – speaking of husband-wife duos, Gena’s husband John Cassavettes was nominated for Best Director for A Woman Under the Influence (1974), but he lost to Francis Ford Coppola. None of Cassavettes’ films received Best Picture nominations, despite his title as the “Godfather of American Indie Cinema”. 
  1. Jill Clayburgh – Despite Jane Fonda’s excellent work in Coming Home (1978), Clayburgh should have won (and was even described by critics like Roger Ebert as the presumable winner) for her work in An Unmarried Woman (1978) as a middle-aged woman whose life falls apart and comes back together again when her stockbroker husband leaves her for a much younger woman. She received another nomination for her performance in Starting Over (1979).
  1. What’s Up Doc? (1972) – Despite starring Best Actress winner Barbara Streisand, Best Actor nominee Ryan O’Neal, and being written/directed by Oscar nominated Peter Bogdanovich, this gut bustingly funny tribute to screwball comedies from the golden age of Hollywood received no nominations. Maybe it was just too light to compete in a year with The Godfather, Cabaret, Deliverance, and The Emigrants (a rare foreign-language contender from Sweden that was *not* directed by Ingmar Bergman). 
  1. Cicely Tyson – Cicely Tyson’s performance as the wife of a sharecropper in Sounder (1972) is some of her greatest, most quietly devastating work, but both her and fellow nominee Diana Ross (who was nominated for playing Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues) were cursed with the unfortunate luck to be nominated the same year as Liza Minnelli. It was the first – and so far only – year that two black women were nominated for Best Actress. 

It’s safe to say that the 1970s represented a high watermark of American filmmaking that has rarely been seen again, and the Academy responded in kind, nominating and awarding classic after classic. Next time, we’re gonna jump a little ahead and visit the 1990s, where we’ll be discussing topics like “Should The Piano have beaten out Schindler’s List?” and “Was Saving Private Ryan *really* robbed of a Best Picture win?”. Join me next time to find out!

Retrospective

coleduffy View All →

21, born and raised in Boston. Mamma Mia wine mom personality. Jerry Gogosian of the film world.

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