Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 15
I’ve embarked on an EPIC challenge to watch every movie ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. To do so, I’ve put all the years from 1929 to 2020 into a bucket and I’m pulling out years one by one to determine what movies to watch.
PART 15: 1972
Fiddler on the Roof
Nicholas and Alexandra
The Last Picture Show
The French Connection (winner)
A Clockwork Orange: Well, this is certainly one of those movies you’re either gonna love or you’re gonna hate.
The first time I saw A Clockwork Orange, I didn’t really ‘get’ it. I was fully aware that I was watching something artistic and amazing, but it didn’t really sink in. Now that I’m oh so much older and not quite that much wiser, I have a new appreciation for this audacious satire on sex and violence.
Our soiree into crime begins in an indeterminate future, where society is teetering between totalitarianism and complete anarchy. Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his gang of thugs roam the streets, blitzed on drug-laced milk (they’re only 14, after all) and engaging in unchecked reigns of terror.
They delight in beating a defenseless homeless man, attack a wealthy writer, then rape his wife, and torment a middle-aged woman before murdering her with an enormous phallic sculpture – all while maniacally humming and dancing along to “Singing in the Rain”. Not gonna lie, it’s pretty messed up. But more on that later.
During one violent rampage, Alex is captured by the police and sentenced to 14 years in jail. However, he negotiates a shortened sentence by agreeing to participate in a new medical trial for the Ludovico Treatment which, in essence, is aversion therapy.
Alex is strapped to a chair and his eyes are clamped open. He’s then exposed to countless images of sex and violence as his body is being pumped full of drugs that cause waves of nausea. This negative Pavlovian response basically brainwashes Alex, turning him into somewhat of a ‘clockwork orange’ – organic on the outside, mechanical on the inside. He’s not being taught that these things are wrong, he’s just being robbed of his free will to perform violent acts.
This leads to the major theme of A Clockwork Orange – morality. In ‘curing’ Alex of his violent tendencies, his doctors have effectively robbed him of his humanity. With no individual freedom to choose between good and evil, right and wrong, are we even really human? Alex may be conditioned against committing violence, but he still doesn’t understand WHY it’s wrong.
And speaking of violence, there’s a lot of it in Clockwork, but it serves a purpose. It’s there in excess to emphasize total moral decay. Of course there will be those who will just see this movie for the sake of the violent scenes – and probably won’t get much more out of it than that. But that’s kind of the point of the whole film – uninspired negligence. Alex turns to violence as entertainment. Those who watch the film just for the shock value are really no different from Alex himself.
So that begs the question – should we sympathize with Alex or not? In the beginning of the movie, it’s so easy to hate him. He is a troubled youth who has no remorse for his actions – but, as the tables turn and Alex is essentially getting a taste of his own medicine – suddenly it’s hard not to feel bad for the little bugger. This is what makes Clockwork so powerful – this challenge to our liberal sensibilities. Sure, torturing an innocent person is wrong, but is it also wrong to torture a guilty person?
Despite its content (or maybe because of it), Clockwork is a beautiful movie to watch. The costumes and sets are painted in vivid, eye-catching primal colors – not unlike a world Tim Burton might have created. It’s like a twisted Alice in Wonderland world, where setting and place provide a visual barrier between the spectator and the horror committed throughout the movie. We want to look away, but we can’t – it’s a moral dilemma.
This calamitous marriage between sex and violence is the main reason I didn’t get this movie the first time I saw it. I was torn between loving the look but hating the content. But now it’s so plain to see how often sex and violence walk hand-in-hand and we don’t even realize it. Even football, the great American pastime, features sexy cheerleaders on the sidelines cheering on the violence on the field. That’s what makes Clockwork so satirical and honestly kind of funny. Where there’s a violent act, there’s usually a phallic symbol. One can’t exist without the other.
Though Clockwork didn’t win any of the Oscars it was nominated for (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Editing), it’s still somewhat of a cult classic. McDowell’s performance as Alex is frankly unmatched. I don’t think there’s anyone else that could have pulled that off as well as he did. He could be charming, chilling, despicable, sympathetic or deliciously over-the-top, all as the situation demands.
As Clockwork begins, our first glimpse of Alex is him sitting in his beloved milk bar, looking straight into the camera and lifting his glass to toast the audience – as if to say, “come along, my friends”. He is, in effect, inviting us to enjoy his exploits, as we do when we tune into reality TV or dive into a trash magazine. The debasement of humanity becomes the height of entertainment.
Fiddler on the Roof: There are certain rights of passage that us Jewish kids have to go through. If you come from a religious family, you’ll probably have a bar or bat mitzvah, maybe a confirmation if you make it that far in your education. You’ll probably have to explain what Hanukkah is at least 20 times (no, it’s not ‘Jewish Christmas’) and learn to just brush it off when your co-workers ask if you enjoyed your ‘High Holiday vacation’. You may have to explain to your friends that matzah is not eaten at EVERY Jewish holiday and SURPRISE – not all of us are rich, wealthy, jewelers, okay? But there is one thing that almost every Jew has in common – we’ve all seen Fiddler on the Roof at least once.
Whether on stage or on screen, Fiddler on the Roof has captivated audiences of all religions for more than 50 years now. The film version, starring the beautiful Topol as Tevye, was first introduced to me when I was about 10 years old – and I instantly fell in love with it. In my opinion, it so perfectly captures all the quirks that connect me to my faith. Gossipy neighbors, the long Jewish goodbye, even that Seinfeld-y Jewish humor (“I know we are your Chosen People but, once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?”) are all present here. In fact, this story has become so engrained in Judaism as I know it that our small, hand-grown synagogue was lovingly referred to as Anatevka and songs like “Sunrise, Sunset” and “The Sabbath Prayer Song” were a part of our Friday Sabbath services. You may even go so far as to say that loving Fiddler is, well, tradition!
The story begins in pre-revolutionary Russia in a town called Anatevka, where a poor dairy farmer named Tevye (Topol) tries to keep his balance by holding steadfastly to his Jewish traditions while coming to terms with the fact that the world is changing around him. Tevye and his wife, Golde (Norma Crane) have five daughters, the first three of which are featured prominently in the story: Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris), Hodel (Michele Marsh), and Chava (Neva Small).
Though Tevye loves his girls and wants them to be happy, tradition dictates that they must marry whomever Tevye sees fit. However, all three daughters break with tradition by falling in love with, and eventually marrying, the wrong sort.
Tzeitel marries her childhood friend, Motol (Leonard Frey), a poor tailor who may not have money, but promises to make Tzeitel happy. The second daughter, Hodel, falls for a Bolshevik revolutionary (Paul Michael Glaser) and leaves her home to be with him in Siberia, and Chava, the third daughter, commits the ultimate betrayal by marrying outside the faith – something Tevye cannot accept.
Throughout the movie, Tevye breaks the fourth wall by talking directly to God and the audience. He ponders everything from everyday life to the future of his family. He explains Jewish culture to the audience, like why Jews keep their heads covered or why they wear prayer shawls. Topol is truly magnificent in this role, and his weight as a performer is immense. Looking two decades older than his 36 years (HE WAS ONLY 36 IN THIS MOVIE), Topol demonstrated virtuosity and agility (or lack thereof) in playing a man nearly twice is actual age. He brings such compassion and rough humor to this role that it’s sometimes hard to watch him struggle so between what he knows to be true and what he knows to be happening in the world around him.
The political undertones play second – er – fiddle – to the trials and tribulations of Tevye, but they’re still there. They probably don’t need to be (they are much more understated in the stage production), but they do help explain why tradition, family and faith are so important to this tight-knit group. And in the final scenes, as the Jews are driven from their homes, it’s impossible not to feel sympathetic not only for them, but for refugees of all faiths, stuck between worlds, looking for a better life for the ones they love.
And, much like a fiddler on the roof, the film teeters between comedy and tragedy. Its poignancy is played out in a fantastic soundtrack, with numbers celebrating the marriage of a daughter to heartbreaking waltzes about leaving everything you love behind for the promise of a better life. It also boasts some amazing beards, the best of which belongs to Lazar Wolf (Paul Mann), the town butcher. I mean, look at that thing!
Fiddler on the Roof gets its title from a painting by Russian artist, Marc Chagall. In his piece titled “The Dead Man”, a funeral scene is depicted with a man playing a violin on a rooftop. This metaphor for a life lived on shaky ground dances throughout this story. We’re all just trying to survive in a world that’s constantly changing. And when life is uncertain, we tend to hold onto those things which give us comfort – whether that’s a favorite meal, a well-loved story, or just finding it within ourselves to laugh it off, get up, and start again. And if there’s one thing the Jews know well, it’s how to find the humor in an otherwise shitty situation. True? Of course true!
Nicholas and Alexandra: For whatever reason, we Americans are obsessed with royalty. We seem to like it more than those nations that actually have it. And when Hollywood gets the opportunity to tell a sweeping royal epic, you know it will be a treat for the eyes – and, indeed, Nicholas and Alexandra is no exception. The costumes are stunning. The set design is beautiful. But that’s about it. With a three-hour run time and two lead characters that are duller than a Siberian winter, this film is a slow and boring trek through one of the darkest times in Russian history.
The film begins in 1904, just as tsar Nicholas Romanov II (Michael Jayston) and his wife, Alexandra (Janet Suzman), welcome their newest child, Alexi, to the world. After mothering four daughters, Alexandra has finally given birth to an heir, though tragedy strikes when they discover the poor child has hemophilia.
Distraught over her son’s health, Alexandra finds comfort in the mystical Grigori Rasputin (Tom Baker), who helps her turn to the power of prayer – or the power of whatever the hell he claims to do – to help cure her son.
Meanwhile poor Nicholas can’t catch a break. His wife is in cahoots with some drug-smoking hippie preacher, his son could die at any moment from any cut of any size, and his country is in complete turmoil. As the economy collapses and matters worsen, Nicholas makes the ill-fated decision to send troops to the western border, which leads to a declaration of war from Germany and the beginning of World War I. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, right?
Inevitably, the imperial family is swept up into the flames of the revolution. Under the leadership “Bloody Nicholas”, Russia loses 7 million soldiers and civilians and he has no choice but to abdicate the throne. The Romanov’s are exiled to Siberia, where they are brutally murdered by the Bolsheviks and reign of the “Last Tsar” of Russia concludes with the rise of Communism.
Now, IMHO, this film has three major problems: number 1 – everyone in Russia speaks perfect British English. Now, I get that this movie is three hours and audiences would most likely not sit through three hours of Russian subtitles or terrible Russian accents – so, okay, I can forgive this.
Number 2 – While this film boasts an all-star cast (Laurence Olivier, Brian Cox, Ian Holm), there are way too many characters here. It’s near impossible to keep everyone straight and, in the grand scheme of things, no one outside of the Romanov family really matters in this telling of history. Even the infamous daughter, Anastasia, gets little to no screen time. Yet, as a one-time student of Russian literature, I know they love to slam their stories with all kinds of folks so, yes, I can forgive this, too.
Number 3 – THESE PEOPLE SUCK. Arguably the film’s biggest challenge is to make these pigheaded rulers into sympathetic characters, but they’re really not likeable at all. Though Nicholas and Alexandra are treated in the movie like tragic characters, they really aren’t. They were deeply flawed and ignorant. While no one deserves the ending this family received, the movie failed to make us care about the Romanov’s until it was too late.
Though Nicholas and Alexandra doesn’t really make note of it, a quick Google search will tell you that the real Nicholas II never even wanted this job to begin with. When his father died, Nicholas worried he wouldn’t be skilled enough to rule Russia with an iron fist and, indeed, he was right. Yet, he never tired of the fame. He loved seeing his people “come out and wave” at him and seemed to take great pleasure in the pageantry of it all. Yet, when 7 million of his Russian brothers died unnecessarily, all he could do was shrug his shoulders and retreat. Ultimately it would be his pride, his desire to make people love him while giving them nothing, that would be his downfall. And perhaps even sadder, and something Nicholas and Alexandra got right, was that it didn’t even seem to bother him much.
The Last Picture Show: In an early scene in The Last Picture Show, Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms), Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) and Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd) ride in a convertible, singing their high school fight song, united in friendship and oblivious to life’s inevitable problems. It’s 1951, the year’s almost over, and anything is possible.
It’s a simple scene, but a poignant one. So often people are unaware that the simplest days are often the best ones – that it’s moments like this, just riding in a car with your friends with the breeze in your hair, that make up those “good old days” we cherish in our old age. The Last Picture Show is filled with moments like this. In every way, it’s a rough, raw and nostalgic story that is enthralling both in spite of and because of its simplicity.
Nothing much goes on in Anarene, Texas. It’s drab and boring. The weather is either too hot or too cold and the buildings are all well past their glory days. Everything is flat, showing off nothing but endless sky. Frankly, it’s a town with no reason to exist filled with people with no reason to live there.
The heartbeat of Anarene lies in a man named Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), who owns the last surviving businesses in town – the diner, the pool hall, and the movie theater. Without those three places, there’s nowhere to go in Anarene except to bed. Sonny, Dwane, and Jacy are all frequenters to Sam’s establishments, not only because that’s all there is to do, but because Sam is like a surrogate father to these kids on the brink of adulthood.
Sonny and Duane, two best friends who couldn’t be more opposite, are in their senior year of high school and eager to break free of Anarene’s grasp. Duane’s girlfriend Jacy also has ants in her pants, but for a different reason. She seems to spread chaos wherever she goes, innocently flaunting a sexuality she doesn’t know how to use yet. Together these three run around heedless as those characters that make up the older generation, including Sam the Lion and Jacy’s mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn), wonder how they came to be so unhappy in their golden years.
Though this film features an ensemble cast, it’s really about the maturation of Sonny, who goes through several of the emotional crises and confrontations that have become staples of American coming-of-age literature. He has an affair with a much older woman named Ruth (Cloris Leachman), experiences heartbreak, love, marriage and loss, all in a year!
And what would a teenage drama be without latent sexuality? While most movies about the 1950’s keep sex locked behind closed doors, The Last Picture Show makes it an obsession, both as a matter of human behavior and a source of entertainment. The irony though is that the sex scenes are some of the saddest and most sharply observed moments. When Sonny and Ruth have sex for the first time, the camera focuses on her tear-stained face. When Duane and Jacy spend their first night together, Duane can’t get it up. Jacy’s mother even tells her virgin daughter to go out and experience sex because it’s not even worth waiting for. Sex, much like Anarene, is inescapable and ultimately disappointing.
At the film’s end, Sonny and Duane attend the last picture show at The Royal Theater, which is being shut down after Sam’s passing. The movie is Red River, a John Wayne western set in Texas. The Royal becomes one of many theaters to suffer as the popularity of television increases, and as one more light in Anarene dims, we’re left wondering if our heroes will have the knowhow, and the strength, to make it out alive.
Shot in black and white, The Last Picture Show is a bit of a cinematic farewell to Old Hollywood. With the closing of The Royal Theater at the end of the movie, we’re saying goodbye to the ol’ westerns and classic movies that brought us to this point in history and making way for a new frontier. Directors like John Ford and Frank Capra passed the baton to Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg, who would all change the face of Hollywood as we know it.
The Last Picture Show would also help give birth to a new flock of actors and actresses. It is the first film of Cybill Shepherd, Randy Quaid, and Sam Bottoms. It helped put newbies Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges on the map. Even veteran actors Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn and Ben Johnson enjoyed a bump in their fame as a result of being in this movie (Leachman and Johnson would actually win Best Supporting Actress and Actor Awards for their roles as Ruth and Sam, respectively).
The Last Picture Show would be nominated for six more awards, including a Best Supporting Actor nom for Jeff Bridges and a nomination for Best Director. Made in 10 weeks on a $1.3 million budget, the film would make more than $29 million at the box office and would be one of the top 10 highest-grossing films of 1971.
In one particularly mournful scene in The Last Picture Show, Sam the Lion talks to Sonny about his own “good old days”, when he and his girl would go skinny-dipping in a fishing tank in town. Though he still pines for her, he knows their time has passed. She’s only a memory now, a reminder that his best days, and the best days of Anarene, are now behind him.
The French Connection: Clad in a porkpie hat, a loose tie and a disheveled shirt (most likely stained with mustard and coffee), Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle is almost a caricature of ‘the New York cop’. Rough on the outside, as well as the inside, Doyle lives and breathes the dirt of the city, the stress of his job. It’s not only his job, it’s his life.
Based on the real-life adventures of narcotic officers Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso (both have small cameos in the movie and served as technical advisors), The French Connection has a simple plot: two cops try to stop a major drug shipment from hitting the streets. Doyle (Egan) is played to perfection by Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider (Grosso) plays his partner, Buddy Russo.
The title refers to the origin of the shipment, which is handled by French drug lord, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) to his New York contact, Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco). There are a few other characters here and there, but they don’t matter. In fact, the plot doesn’t even matter. In this game of cat and mouse, the only thing that matters is the chase.
In fact, this whole movie is one big hunt, culminating in an epic car chase that is downright reckless and terrifying. As Doyle weaves his Pontiac Sedan through the streets of downtown New York, chasing an elevated subway carriage carrying one of Charnier’s men, actual people can be seen jumping out of the way to avoid his rageful driving. Filmed using cameras on the bumper of Doyle’s car, as well as one mounted on his dash, the entire scene is a white-knuckle experience. He’s dodging real pedestrians on real streets. There are times he seems so desperate to catch up with this train that he’s willing to take out a person or two in the process.
This scene is an interesting foil to the scene just before it, when Doyle and Charnier perform a bit of a choreographed dance on the subway, evading each other by jumping on and off the train before it leaves the station. It’s about as proficient as it gets in this gritty film and every move has to be expertly timed in order for the scene to work. It’s these two types of chases, the planned ones and the sporadic ones, that keep us on the edge of our seats from start to finish.
And if those heart-racing pursuits weren’t enough for you, the hand-held documentary filming style will certainly push you right into the action. The French Connection was one of the first films of the 1970s to use this “gritty realism” cinematography, with other movies like Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico following suit.
Now, if you like your police dramas with a distinct division between good and bad, this is not the movie for you. Though Doyle is the “good guy” fighting crime, the movie wastes no time establishing the fact that he’s also a complete ass. In fact, the first time we see him, he’s dressed in a Santa Claus outfit beating up a drug dealer. It’s the very definition of a “woah” moment.
What makes Doyle good at his job ultimately makes him a bad person. His arrogance and cold determination to win at all costs helps ensure that he gets the job done, but it does not make him a likeable or sympathetic character. We actually know little to nothing about him. Where does the nickname “Popeye” come from? We don’t know. Why does he have a drinking problem? We don’t know. What’s with his weird sexual perversions? We don’t know. In a movie where we’re supposed to root for the good guy, it’s very unsettling to know so little about him. It’s as if the movie is saying that even good guys aren’t really so good.
Besides winning Best Picture, The French Connection would also take home Oscars for Best Director, Best Actor (Hackman), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. Scheider also received a Best Supporting Actor nomination, but did not win his category.
In researching this movie, several people criticized The French Connection for surface-level violence…for depicting brutality for brutality’s sake. While I agree that this movie does seem to have an unnecessary amount of brutishness, I think that’s kind of the point. In today’s day and age, violence goes unexamined all the time. Cops murder people in the streets, in their beds, in their cars, and go unpunished. Drug deals go wrong, and people get murdered. What The French Connection succeeds at is holding up a mirror to the dirty world we live in and forcing us to stare at it, without any editorializing. It unsettles us, because the “good guys” aren’t always good…and the “bad guys” aren’t always bad. The division between the two is never a straight line and, as the ending of the movie proves, the chase is never-ending.
This was such an eclectic group of films. From psychedelic ultra-violence to the muted sepia tones of a poor Russian village, the films of 1972 were a visual spectacle.
On the muted side, Fiddler on the Roof told a story about the importance of tradition and family values, while The French Connection used boring browns, grays and blacks to speak to the ugliness of New York in the 1970s. My hidden gem this year, The Last Picture Show, went all out and filmed in black and white to help speak to the blandness of a small Texas town in 1950s America.
On the flip side, Nicolas and Alexandra sparkled with stunning costume design in rich reds, blues and purples and A Clockwork Orange didn’t think twice about giving an old woman a hot pink hairdo.
With the exception of Nicholas and Alexandra, I really enjoyed every one of these movies. Did The French Connection deserve the win? Meh. I’m leaning towards no. A Clockwork Orange was more deserving, as was The Last Picture Show. But what these movies have in common was how much they changed filmmaking. Every one of these films can stand as a primitive example of their genre as we know it, timeless, relevant and culturally significant.
Onto the next pull!