Thursday, May 26, 2011

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The Ultimate Prize: Picture, 1974

This is the category that makes history. Sometimes it's because of what got snubbed, whether in nomination (The Dark Knight) or win (Citizen Kane), but often it's the winner itself that stands on its own, whether deserving (Gone with the Wind) or undeserving (The Greatest Show on Earth...not my opinion, just history's). The winner of Best Picture stands forever in Hollywood legend, whether it likes it or not.

Often, people are quick to declare what merits Best Picture, with many claiming that it should go to the movie that is (a) most relevant to the time and (b) most likely to be remembered in the years to come. Which is fucking stupid, because how on earth are people supposed to judge what will be most remembered in the years to come? Most of the time, I forget about The Hurt Locker's existence, though it fit criteria a nicely and is used as one of the examples of the Academy "getting it right". Also, how is one supposed to choose something that is both timely and timeless? I personally think The King's Speech is a timeless story -- anyone who's had a best friend in time of need should be able to look past the class system -- yet apparently it's old-fashioned and stodgy to many others.

The voters of 1974 lucked out, with period pieces Chinatown and The Godfather: Part II reflecting contemporary concerns regarding corruption, times changing for the worse, crooks in power; it's better to approach these things when through the safe barrier of 1930s outfits. Meanwhile, the intimate The Conversation faced a paranoid, post-Watergate public; the biopic Lenny asked questions about the nature of censorship (cinema is no stranger); and then there's The Towering Inferno, which felt that the in vogue skyscrapers of the day would become death traps. My post-9/11 self feels eerie while watching certain moments of Inferno, but I'd never give it my vote. The Conversation is probably the most dated of the other four, but isn't it still a prime example of great filmmaking? I'd rather vote with my gut, and hope that others don't despise me for having feelings different from their own.

So here's what my gut tells me concerning the five Best Picture nominees of 1974. I've illustrated each with my favorite scene.

Meeting Noah Cross

There are two movies on this list that held my attention throughout the run-time. As in, I never left to go to the bathroom, tweeted during, or checked the time. This is one of them. Suspenseful, funny, romantic, and devastating. The performances are tops, from the lead to the brief appearances by Diane Ladd, John Hillerman and Fritzi Burr. Fantastic all-around, even if the music is forgettable.

The After-Party
The Conversation

I don't think I quite emphasized how much I admire this film. The sound is pretty much all diegetic, with the film compelling us to listen as attentively to each nuance as Gene Hackman's Harry Caul does. Of course, we find ourselves becoming just as paranoid, just as doubtful over what we think we might have heard, who can be trusted, who's in on "it", whatever "it" may be. It's not just the technical achievements, of course: Hackman's performance is one of his best, a private individual so afraid of exposure that the idea of someone leaving a birthday present in his apartment deeply unsettles him. Hackman's silence breaks my heart, especially in his scene with Teri Garr; even more heartbreaking is when he actually opens up, as in the after-party scene. The film builds the tension and never releases. Very cool. I do think it gets too slow in parts and takes a while to get the ending, but I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and say this was the fault of the lateness of my viewing.

Fredo's Smart
The Godfather: Part II

Must I reiterate? "Meh" to the Vito stuff, "wow but..." to the Michael stuff, "absolutely!" (bow) to the Fredo stuff. A great film, I'm happy for its win, but there were better films this year. Still, it's a great achievement.

The Phone Call

Hey, did you know that I absolutely love this film? This is the only other film that I paid complete attention to while watching. Just incredible, haunted me the rest of the week, leaves me awed just thinking about it.

Any Scene with William Holden, His Awesome Glasses, and That Dinner Jacket
The Towering Inferno

A bone is thrown to the highest-grossing film of the year. The scope is epic, the leads are game, the action sequences are impressive, but overall a pretty dull film. Perhaps the problem lies in its conception: when Fox and Warner Bros. greenlit separate adaptations of The Tower and The Glass Inferno, they pooled resources to make one gargantuan disaster flick rather than release similar films against each other. Sometimes I think, "Take a lesson, Snow White producers." Then I remember that there is far too much going on in The Towering Inferno with little payoff. As a result, characters are introduced and forgotten (Faye Dunaway) or are given one-scene arcs (Robert Wagner). The best disaster films remember to be big and intimate -- certainly the greatest disaster film, Airport, remembered this, with a handful of connected characters, each one driving the plot. I love disaster flicks, but as good as it looks (and despite wonderful turns by Steve McQueen and William Holden), it doesn't deliver.


I try to vary the stars up a bit, usually only allowing for a repeat of one rating. Alas (or maybe not), this year had a pretty solid lineup. As stated, I can roll with the Academy choosing The Godfather: Part II. But hey, I bet you can't guess where my vote goes...

yeah, you saw this coming


Jason H. said...

I agree with your statements about the criteria for winning Best Picture: to me, it should represent the highest-quality film of that year through acting, directing, writing, and production. I don't think it has to necessarily be timely and timeless, it just has to be a great movie. Of course, awards and other superlatives are inherently subjective, so there's never going to be a consensus. But isn't that half the fun of the Oscars, naming your favorite and then defending it as the year's best?

That said, I really enjoyed these posts about '74. Great work! You've convinced me to check out Lenny, which I'll be doing tonight :).

TomS said...

I think in a perfect world, Oscar voters select not only a film that moved them in a deep way, but one that they are proud to hold up as the best work their industry had to offer. My opinion is: I don't believe a film can be great if it is not timely or timeless...

Doesn't mean it's no good or we don't enjoy it, now and forever. It just means it hasn't earned the highest recognition of its achievements.

Of course, we don't live in a perfect world, so you and I have to correct the mistakes voters made back then!!

I was not among those in the "Godfather II" camp that year. I liked the film, especially the Vito stuff :).
But I felt it was too long, and too "cold" to really embrace.

"The Conversation" was a surprise, and with Coppola's other film in contention, it had no chance to win. I agree, it tends to drag at times, but in the right mood, it sucks you in. It has stood the test of time as an emblem of the Watergate era.

"Chinatown" might have been my favorite of the five, and I think many people thought it would win. But like all five of the films, it was bleak, and it perhaps didn't carry the weight of the Godfather II.

"Lenny" was probably the most interesting of the five, to me. I would have voted for this too, except that I was still such a big fan of "Cabaret", and "Lenny" lacked that undefinable magic. On the other hand, it would be hard to deny that this was a perfect example of art triumphing as popular entertainment.

"Towering Inferno" was a wasted nomination....

( is ironic that in the year of Lenny Bruce, "Harry and Tonto" ended with a scene between Harry and a Cat Lady, who was played by the real-life Sally Marr, Lenny's mother.)

Walter L. Hollmann said...

Jason - Anything I can do to spread the gospel of Fosse! I'm so glad you enjoyed it, hopefully as much as I did watching the films. I want to get more people involved so I *can* debate the Oscar (and my own) picks.

Tom - Haha I recognized Sally Marr because she was wearing the same outfit Jan Miner wears throughout Lenny! I agree on the coldness of Part II. Part I feels classy, but Part II sometimes comes off as...designed. Like Coppola demanded an Oscar for the Corleone saga. And I'll never understand what the hell happened with Inferno.