The 1970s: When Oscar Nominees Mattered

During Hollywood’s second Golden Age in the 1970s, the Academy actually had to make some tough choices for Oscars we remember.

When Easy Rider was released in 1969, studio executives across Hollywood were both confused and scared shitless. What the hell was this rambling, incoherent nonsense about hippie biker lowlifes just wandering around doing nothing? And worse, why the hell were so many people flocking to see this artsy crap? Why weren’t they flocking to see Hello Dolly! instead? It had some catchy musical numbers and Rex Harrison! People love that Rex Harrison!

It was the beginning of the end for old school Hollywood for much of the next decade, and their precious good old boys club of the Academy and Oscars too. Independent filmmakers—directors, writers, actors, and cinematographers—a goodly handful of them alumni of the Corman School of cheap and dirty low-budget moviemaking, quietly began infiltrating the studios, sneaking in through the back doors while no one was looking, and taking over.

With the sharp and violent death of the hippie era, the ongoing and seemingly endless Vietnam War, and with Watergate just around the corner, Americans were turning cynical and paranoid, and were no longer much interested in simple escapist dress-up fantasies when they went to the movies. Being young, a little wild, and understanding this new mood implicitly, this freewheeling crew of maverick filmmakers plugged straight into the zeitgeist. As happened in the late ’40s, American films of the late ’60s and early ’70s took a gritty, realistic turn, told unconventional stories, and didn’t worry so much about clean and tidy happy endings. And in the process, wouldn’t you know it? They ended up making an astounding number of masterpieces, films still watched and discussed today, and still considered some of the finest examples of the American cinematic arts the country has ever produced. For awhile there anyway, before everything went to hell again.

The really funny thing in all this, speaking of cynicism, is that the Oscars (that big Daddy gatekeeper of traditional Hollywood glitz and glamour) had no choice but to pay attention. And by tracing out all the films nominated for Best Picture across the decade, you can get a neat glimpse into the rise and fall of the second Golden Age of American filmmaking.

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It was simple enough for the Academy to ignore Easy Rider when the 1970 nominations rolled around (despite its win at Cannes), but it was already too late. They still clung to the old Hollywood formulas best as they could, with nominations for big, slick, studio crowd pleasers like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Hello Dolly! and a token prestige number like Anne of a Thousand Days, but had little choice but to give a nod (it was rated X, for chrissakes!) to John Schlesinger’s gritty portrait of low-rent, street level drug addiction and male prostitution in Midnight Cowboy. The fucking film had received too much praise and hype. Too many people knew about it, and both Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman as the inimitable Ratso Rizzo were simply too good.

As if agreeing to give the damn movie a nomination wasn’t bad enough, imagine the horror among the old guard when it actually walked away with the precious trophy.

The influence of this new breed of nogoodniks continued to duke it out with traditional Hollywood in ’71 and gained a little more ground. When the nominations came around, it was no surprise to see nods for the grand and sprawling WWII epic Patton, the all-star disaster number Airport, or the monstrously popular weeper Love Story. But then there was Robert Altman’s dark Korean War comedy M.A.S.H. (making for an interesting contemporary counterpoint to the gung-ho Patton), and Bob Rafelson’s sneaky little shaggy dog indie film Five Easy Pieces, with long-time Corman standby Jack Nicholson.

Rafelson had worked on the trippy, sloppy Monkees film Head with Nicholson a couple years earlier, and the low-key resemblance to Easy Rider here in tone and style (and even a few of the faces that pop up) is likely no accident.

Patton won the Best Picture honors, which is no surprise given it’s a hell of a film, but the funny thing is it’s a hell of a film written by another Corman American International alumnus, Francis Ford Coppola.

By 1972, Stanley Kubrick was already a household name after the likes of Dr. Strangelove and Spartacus, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it was still a bit of a shocker when his ultraviolent X-rated A Clockwork Orange was nominated, given the fierce debate the film had sparked across much of the planet. It was less shocking to see Fiddler on the Roof in the mix, or that historical costume drama Nicholas and Alexandra (directed by Patton’s Franklin J. Schaffner).

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But then here came still another Corman student, Peter Bogdanovich, with his downbeat, small town sleeper Last Picture Show. And out of nowhere, or so it seemed, came crazy former documentarian William Friedkin with the tough and tough-minded energetics of The French Connection, a film which introduced Gene Hackman to movie audiences and broke every long-standing rule of what a cop movie is supposed to be about; it also walked away with dam near everything that year.

At that point it was all over. The inmates had officially taken over the asylum, as proven in 1973. Traditional Hollywood numbers like The Immigrants and Sounder felt like mere filler, afterthoughts among the Best Picture nominees, given they were pitted against Bob Fosse’s dark Nazi musical Cabaret, the searing hillbilly horrors of John Boorman’s Deliverance, and, well, Coppola’s The Godfather. Yeah. he’d come quite some ways since Dementia 13 just a handful of years earlier.

Big Hollywood made a brief comeback in ’74 when The Sting, with all of its studio gloss and formulaic, crowd-pleasing earnestness. People just loved that Robert Redford/Paul Newman team-up too much, what with all their period shenanigans. Besides, that crazy Bill Friedkin’s The Exorcist disturbed too many people, and no film with that much gratuitous onscreen vomiting could ever win a Best Picture Oscar (but it could be nominated!). That sweet bit of low-budget nostalgia American Graffiti was fun and a big hit, but who the hell is this George Lucas? And who the hell are all these actors? The only one we recognize is that little Ronny Howard from Andy Griffith (who would go on to get his own directorial debut with Corman), but the rest are newbies we’ve never heard of. And Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers? Jesus! Brilliant or not, c’mon.  We’re in the midst of Watergate here, people, remember? Who needs a bunch of grim Scandinavian navel-gazing about cancer?

In terms of what films Academy members had to choose between, and in terms of American film history itself, the next three years were, in a few words, pretty fucking astonishing. Every last one of the nominated films (even the bad ones) have gone on to become part of our collective cultural consciousness, solidifying the position of directors like Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, and Steven Spielberg and actors like Rovert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, and Al Pacino in the pantheon.

Coppola had two films in the running in 1975: along with his brilliant operatic sequel to The Godfather, there was also his equally brilliant (and particularly apt for the times) meditation on paranoia and loneliness, The Conversation. He was pitted against Bob Fosse’s arty Lenny Bruce biopic, Lenny, Roman Polanski’s serpentine and knotted homage to ’40s detective films Chinatown, and yes, The Towering Inferno, which was tossed in there as a bone to the popcorn crowd given it made half-a-kajillion dollars, and was at least a little better than Earthquake.

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With the exception of the latter, any one of those films could have justifiably been called the year’s best, but no one was stunned when the award went to The Godfather, Part II, least of all Coppola.

In 1976 the contender’s were Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (by this time, Nicholson was becoming quite the old hat at the Oscar game), Robert Altman’s stunning American tapestry Nashville, Kubrick’s deliberately long and measured costume drama Barry Lyndon, Al Pacino louder and more scene-chewing than ever in Sidney Lumet’s great Dog Day Afternoon, and Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws.

Cuckoo’s Nest got the final nod, but a lot of insiders cite fellow insider Spielberg with sticking the knife in with his shark picture, marking the beginning of the end of the reign of the mavericks. Jaws was a return to old-fashioned filmmaking, setting the cynicism of the age aside to give the audience an entertaining thrill ride with a satisfying ending. More than that, though, it reminded studio executives of the importance of the bottom line. If a film didn’t bring in five times its budget in its first weekend, it was dead and gone in their eyes, an unmitigated failure, and whoever was responsible for the flop would be selling pencils out of a tin cup on the corner of Hollywood and Western faster than you can spit.

But there was still one unbelievable year left for American films, as the Best Picture nominees in 1977 were the Watergate drama All the President’s Men, Rocky (which today bears only the vaguest familial resemblance to all its cartoon sequels), Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, the Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory, and Lumet’s prescient (thanks to that Paddy Chayefsky script) dark media satire Network. Zowee, huh?   

I don’t know if the fears surrounding Jaws and the emergence of the blockbuster necessarily came true as predicted.  Yes would-be blockbusters came to increasingly dominate the summer and Christmas market, but the indie filmmakers were still around and still being recognized, and a new crop had started to emerge around the edges, mostly in genre films. People like David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, John  Landis, Joe Dante, and so many others were working away there in the shadows (some still with Corman). But what did happen was this: while the studios used to do everything they could to squash the mavericks who were making the standard formula pictures look like crap (people like Orson Welles), this time around they adopted them, brought them in, and when possible tamed them.

And the Academy turned its focus for the most part back to standard, inoffensive, disposable crowd pleasers. It would be a few years before another Coppola film was nominated (Apocalypse Now in 1980), or another Scorsese film (Raging Bull in 1981), and both would lose to more easily digestible family dramas. There were flukes along the way in the years that followed, like Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, but he was crushed like a bug soon enough.

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By the early ’80s, in spite of the presence of filmmakers like David Lynch or Terry Gilliam, the giddy excitement was gone, and there was a return to a safe, conventional business as usual. Films that were hugely popular and respected at the time, films that won awards (like Ordinary People, Kramer vs. Kramer, or The Turning Point) were all but forgotten a year later.  Sure there was a thriving indie scene, but it wasn’t exactly aimed at the Academy. The studios were too focused on the bottom line to dare take any unwarranted chances with anything anyone might consider offensive; happy satisfying endings were once more the unbreakable commandment.

And as a result? Well, try this little test, just for fun. Go back over the last 10 years and scan the titles of every film nominated for Best Picture. Then honestly ask yourself how many of those films people will still be watching and discussing 40 years from now. Hell, how many of them will anyone even remember at all?