Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 22
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 22: 1974
The Sting (winner)
A Touch of Class
Cries and Whispers
The Exorcist: The Exorcist may not be a great film, but it’s certainly a top-notch horror film. It has several scenes that are terrifying beyond words. I mean, it’s one thing to read about demonic possession – it’s quite another to see it. Furniture flying across the room, sores erupting on the victim’s face, bodies moving in unnatural ways, scars and scratches appearing out of nowhere.
With scenes that convey a sense of realism, The Exorcist is enough to convince almost anyone of the possibility of demonic possession. By the end, I felt as if I had been exorcised myself – limp, frightened and exhausted.
Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is the 12-year-old daughter of actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn). When we first meet Regan, she seems like any happy-go-lucky pre-teen…innocently chatting with “Captain Howdy”, a demon she communicates with using a Ouija board she found in the basement. You know, typical 12-year-old behavior.
But soon she starts hearing strange noises, uttering random obscenities and experiencing violent tantrums and seizures. At a loss as to what to do, her mother consults with an army of doctors, who perform a slew of brain and psychological tests before confirming the obvious: they have no freaking idea what’s wrong with her. As a last resort, one doctor suggests Regan might benefit from an exorcism.
And so, Chris consults with a local priest, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), who agrees to examine Regan with the help of fellow spiritual guide, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow). By now, little Regan has become a grotesque monster that speaks in a chilling, groveling voice. And finally, more than 90 minutes into this film, we get to see Regan’s exorcism.
If movies are opportunities for escapism, The Exorcist is one of the most powerful ever made. Objections and questions come later – watching this movie is an experience all on its own. There were several times I felt shock, horror, nausea and genuine fear.
For example, let us talk about that scene where Regan scuttles down the stairs like a spider (NO THANK YOU), or the scene where her head TURNS COMPLETELY AROUND, or the part with the crucifix (you know the part).
This movie also benefited from having a fairly unknown cast. You could even argue that this added to the film’s sense of realism, as did its documentary-style atmosphere.
There were also a handful of events that transpired on set that contributed to the movie’s performances. When a harness used to pull Chris backwards yanked her too hard, Burstyn fell, permanently injuring her coccyx. The look on her face was genuine pain and used in the movie.
As Regan’s bed shakes violently beneath her, Blair screams out in pain after injuring her back when the hydraulics malfunctioned…this scene was also used in the final film.
And that oh so popular vomit scene was technically misjudged and hit Millar in the face rather than the chest, creating such a look of genuine shock that it was ALSO kept in the final film. The things we do for fame!
It’s moments like these, filled with genuine reactions, that make The Exorcist one of the top ten most successful horror movies of all time. Some may find these moments funny – or even campy – but watch this alone in the dead of night in your bed by yourself and you’ll be singing a different tune.
The cultural conversation that surrounded The Exorcist, including the treatment the film gave to the Roman Catholic Church, helped it become the first horror movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, one of the 10 Academy Awards it was nominated for. It was the highest-grossing R-rated horror film of all time until It in 2017 and it continues to affect audiences even 40+ years later.
When this movie first hit theaters, there were reports of people having adverse physical reactions to it, including fainting, vomiting, heart attacks and miscarriages. Though it may not be the best film ever made, it’s still an experience that will haunt, if not take possession, of you.
The Sting: Never trust boys this handsome.
The Sting falls into the most exclusive Best Picture Oscar category of all: it’s a freaking blast. Look at the list of Best Picture winners and it’s drama after drama after drama. Besides maybe Annie Hall (1978) and the reign of musicals that took home the award in the 1950s and 60s, few Best Picture winners offer the playful, entertaining and fun time that you get with this classic con movie. As Gondorff or Hooker might say, “It’s Aces!”
Set in the 1930s, The Sting oozes classic filmmaking. Through brilliant costume design and writing, this movie takes us back to a jazzy, swinging America, just three years after the Great Depression. Directed by George Roy Hill, who also directed Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, this movie weaves together a con so intricately layered that we’re hooked just as easily as bad-guy Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).
Any description of a con movie will inevitably give something away, so I’ll go so far as to say this: Johnny Hooker (Redford) is a small-time con artist working in Joliet, Illinois in 1936. When he and his partner, Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones, father of James), accidently con the mob, big boss man Lonnegan (Shaw) retaliates by killing Coleman. Hooker then flees to Chicago where he meets up with veteran grifter Henry Gondorff (Newman). The two partner up to lure Lonnegan into an elaborate con that involves setting up and running a phony betting parlor. The rest you’ll have to see for yourself!
The majority of The Sting focuses on the mechanics of the con, based on an outdated setup called “The Wire”. Each section of the film begins with an illustrated title card, similar in style to the Saturday Evening Post covers of the day, telling us what part of the con we’re to learn about next.
With such attention to detail, it’s hard to believe that this movie was made 40 years after the period in which it takes place. Costumes and sets looked straight out of the era and the bouncy soundtrack, featuring Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer”, brought us right into 1930s America.
Like many of the best heist movies, The Sting boasts a strong screenplay anchored by a light and breezy tone. It doesn’t get too bogged down in the details, but there’s enough uncertainty about who’s double-crossing whom that, by the time the last act arrives, even those of us who are expecting something to happen might be unprepared by what actually happens.
The Sting was a major player during the 1974 Academy Awards. Not only did it win Best Picture, but it captured another six awards, including Best Director, Best Writing, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing and Best Music. Redford snagged a Best Actor nomination, but lost his category.
In many con movies, we end up rooting for the criminals, and The Sting is no exception. Hooker and Gondorff might be petty thieves, but they’re made slightly better by the fact that Lonnegan is a cold-blooded murderer. Like Robin Hood, these two conmen prey on the greed of others, giving them a moral compass the audience can relate to…and by constantly staying just one step ahead of us, keep us guessing until the very last shot.
A Touch of Class: It’s all fun and games until it’s not fun and games anymore.
Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert started it and Katherine Hepburn and Carey Grant perfected it. In Melvin Frank’s A Touch of Class, Glenda Jackson and George Segal do their best to pay homage to “the incompatible lovers”. While this sharp-edged rom-com is quick to deliver a few laughs, like any illicit affair, it ultimately leaves us unsatisfied.
Vickie Allessio (Jackson), a divorced mother of two, is a dress designer who steals high fashion looks – in addition to other people’s husbands – and reproduces them at a cheaper price. Steve Blackburn (Segal) is an American executive living in London who has “…never cheated on his wife…in the same town”.
The two comically bump into each other several times, first at a soccer game, then on a bus, then running for the same cab during a rainstorm. Finally, Steve suggests they have tea at a nearby hotel, and Vickie agrees. And so begins an adulterous adventure that kicks off with a week in Spain and eventually leads to a secret love nest in Soho.
But affairs can be a messy business. Steve has to dodge interference from his wife and in-laws, not to mention his friend Walter Menkes (a very hairy Paul Sorvino), who seems to show up at the most inopportune times. Then, of course, there’s the problem of being middle-aged, married, and rather stuck in one’s own ways (i.e. – who gets the left side of the bed?).
Though there were some literal LOL moments, when all’s said and done, A Touch of Class is a little…patchy. Like Hepburn’s most loved characters, Vickie is a charismatic woman who takes charge of her sexuality. She knows perfectly well that Steve is married, yet she’s fine with unattached, casual sex. She even gets to deliver some of the best dialogue in the film, complete with precise, pointed delivery (“Why don’t you just hop on top and hope for the best?”). Her comedy is hilariously deadpan and matches perfectly with Steve’s erratic bumbling.
However, clever scenes like this are paired with a lot of slapstick silliness, which is cute – but doesn’t really “fit”. At one point, Steve tells his wife he’s taking the dog for a walk, but makes a beeline for Vickie’s apartment. After a quickie with her, he returns home, realizing he forgot the dog at Vickie’s flat. Cute, funny, but all in all, kind of dumb.
While Steve and Vickie appear to be a perfect match, the relationship was doomed from the start. It’s not so much a matter of how it will end, but when. And when it does, we’re just as heartbroken, frustrated and upset as they are.
In a very controversial win, Jackson was awarded an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Vickie, beating out Ellen Burstyn (The Exorcist) and Barbara Streisand (The Way We Were). A Touch of Class was also nominated for Best Music, Best Song (“All That Love Went to Waste”), Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.
It’s often said that the strongest relationships start with a solid foundation. For Vickie and Steve, who were building castles in the air, heartbreak was inevitable. For these two, the only thing binding them together was the fear of being alone, which ended up tearing them apart anyway. A bittersweet story of infatuation, desire and everything in between, A Touch of Class is a movie about falling in love the hard way, and learning to let it go.
American Graffiti: Do you ever feel like you were born in the wrong decade? Ever since I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with 50s and 60s pop culture. The music, the movies, the TV shows, the celebrities…my childhood bedroom was even decked out to look like a 50s diner, complete with black and white tile flooring and Happy Days branded ketchup and mustard bottles. The radio in my little red Plymouth Breeze was tuned to Dick Biondi’s 104.3 classic oldies station and, when I’d show up to school in my Richie Cunningham letterman’s sweater, the teasing was worse than my attempt at the bouffant. I don’t know what it was that initially drew me to this part of American history, but I’ve just been rockin’ around the clock ever since!
Unsurprisingly, movies like American Graffiti were commonplace in my film collection. Though other kids my age knew Harrison Ford from Star Wars or The Fugitive, I knew him as “that cowboy from American Graffiti.” And while some people saw Richard Dreyfuss for the first time in Jaws or What About Bob?, I knew him first as daydreamer Curt Henderson.
What makes coming-of-age movies like this so enjoyable is that it’s really not about anything in particular. Like the cars it so heavily worships, American Graffiti just rambles and cruises, taking us from the diner to the dance to Make-Out Point, all in the course of one summer night.
Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far, away, George Lucas knew how to tell stories about real people in real places. Set in Modesto, California in the early 1960s, American Graffiti is a film about the twilight of American innocence – before drugs, Vietnam and political unrest. It’s a world still colored in candied tones, flavored with cherry Coke and riding high on the fins of Thunderbirds and Impalas.
Against the hotrods and neon backdrops is a story of one long summer night in the lives of four high school friends: Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss), a college-bound goofball; Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), Curt’s classmate who is finding it harder and harder to leave his girlfriend, Laurie (Cindy Williams) behind; Terry “The Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith), your classic nerd whose misadventures with lady friend Debbie (Candy Clark) are as touching as they are hilarious; and John Milner (Paul Le Mat), a Fonzie-type drag-racer who just can’t seem to leave his glory days behind him.
From here, the story is quite simple. Each in their own way, these four friends enjoy their last night together before Steve and Curt leave for college. They hit up Mel’s Drive-In for burgers, cruise Main Street looking for pretty girls, then take their girls into the woods to make out. In a sad way, they almost convince themselves that these moments will last forever, but all of us who have had these endless summer nights know that’s far from the truth.
There’s a loss of innocence that weaves through American Graffiti, symbolized by the illusive white Thunderbird that Curt just can’t seem to track down. By the end, each one of these characters is either revealed to the audience in a new light or learns to see his own world in a new light. The way Steve treats Laurie, for example, suggests that he may not be the all-American boy-next-door he’s shown to be, while John, who puts on a tough exterior, is actually a bit of a cupcake. Terry learns the conventional lesson that being himself is enough to impress even the prettiest girl in town, and Curt – who essentially sees behind the curtain ala The Wizard of Oz and The Truman Show – learns that the world is much less glamourous, noble and exciting than he once thought.
And what would a movie about love, loss and rock n’ roll be without music? Featuring more than 40 classic hits of the era, the soundtrack to American Graffiti is essentially a nonstop radio show, with songs emanating from car radios and school dance record players. The music is easily one of the best parts of the film, and is oftentimes just as important to the storyline as any of the characters are.
Although it was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Clark), Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, it came up empty-handed. However, the movie was a massive hit with audiences, bringing in $55 million in 1973 and another $63 million when it was re-released five years later. Produced on a $777,000 budget, American Graffiti is thought to be one of the most profitable films of all time.
American Graffiti immortalizes those late summer nights you wished would never end – when the fears of the adult world were nonexistent but the innocence of childhood was long gone. And as we learn the fates of our beloved characters in the end credits, it acts as a sobering reminder that reality, big and brash, sinks in eventually. Like Wolfman Jack’s popsicles, the world these kids inhabit is melting.
Cries and Whispers: After watching Cries and Whispers, it would be easy to think that this is the film adaptation of some epic, introspective Checkov novel that beret-wearing, chain smoking intellectuals discussed over cups of espresso. Such is its power, scope and brilliance. Yet, it is just the cinematic representation of the mind of legendary Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman.
Cries and Whispers is a movie about mortality, grieving and emotional poverty. Set in a lavish estate in the 19th century, and centered around a woman dying of cancer, this film is continuously fascinating and haunting.
Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is a 40-something spinster with terminal cancer. Her sisters, Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann) have come to her deathbed to do what they can to help, but they can’t seem to provide Agnes with any sense of peace. The only one who seems able to get through to Agnes is her maid, Anna (Kari Sylwan) – who is arguably the only ‘good’ person in the film. A young woman who lost a child of her own, Anna is a God-fearing woman who we first witness praying for the soul of her dead daughter before she’s called to tend to Agnes.
Anna clearly loves Agnes, and would love the other sisters if they were, indeed, loveable. Through a series of theatrical flashbacks, we come to understand who these women are and, maybe more importantly, WHY they are the way they are. Maria, who is flighty and shallow, has an extramarital affair that results in her husband attempting suicide. Karin, who is cold and hostile, mutilates herself in order to keep her husband away from her. Even Agnes, in her final moments, flashes back to what it felt like to be continuously rejected by her mother.
None of these flashbacks work to justify what these characters do, rather it makes their behavior in the film logical, if not expected. Bergman even revealed that these three sisters are meant to represent facets of his mother’s personality – with Agnes being principled, Karin egotistical, and Maria cold and testy. And by confining them within this cold, near windowless mansion, he also suggests these women are part of the same soul – trapped as they wind their way from room to room, like passages of the human body.
Of course, the fact that the walls, floor, curtains, furniture and decorations are all BLOOD RED only reinforces that metaphor. The natural associations one makes with red, especially in a story like Cries and Whispers, are of sin and blood – which I’m sure was intentional. But it also works to envelop us in a membrane of passion and fear, anger and lust, life and death.
There’s also an uncomfortableness that comes with watching this film, like we – as the audience – are intruders, witnesses to something we’re not supposed to see. Those of us who have seen a loved one die of cancer know that it’s utterly gut-wrenching. It’s painful in every possible way and it is not, as Hollywood seems to portray it, a moment of serenity and calm. There are moments Agnes, with cracked lips and dry mouth, literally gasps for breath. Her hair is greasy and stringy. Her face shines with perspiration. As she screams out in pain, she both craves death and fears it. Her sisters look away, but the camera lingers…we linger. In this virtually ego-free performance, Agnes’ strained swallows and whimpers say more than words ever could – and they certainly suggest that sounds can bleed with anguish just as easily as the flesh can.
Cries and Whispers was the fourth foreign language film to ever be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Though it didn’t win, it did take home a statue for Best Cinematography and nominations in the Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Costume Design categories.
Like many emotionally driven films, Cries and Whispers can be difficult to watch. This is not a movie you watch as entertainment, rather it’s one you experience. Dreamlike and surreal, this movie impacts the soul like others impact the mind. Like suffering with a terminal illness, this movie brings about thoughts on faith, acceptance and reason. It left me feeling like I had just read a myth or fable I didn’t quite understand, yet I couldn’t help but let it grab hold of me. And as the film comes to a close – ironically flashing back to those peaceful moments before Agnes was bedridden, we’re reminded – in the cruelest way – that life can both bless us and punish us.
The movies of 1974 began and ended with cries of pain. It started with the release of Cries and Whispers, then ended with the frightening thriller, The Exorcist. Though these two movies couldn’t be more different from each other, they forced us to look inside ourselves and experience the reality of human suffering. They opened our eyes to the very visceral fear of not being in control of our own facilities and showed how a disease, be it fantastical or real, could destroy us from the inside out.
Maybe that’s why the remainder of these films were, by comparison, uplifting! American Graffiti made me nostalgic for nostalgia and, like The Last Picture Show, showed how those simple days of just hanging out with friends and cruising Main Street are the ones that oftentimes mean the most.
A Touch of Class was a fun grown-up rom-com, and comes in as a very close second to my hidden gem this year, Cries and Whispers. Though Cries and Whispers is a difficult film to sit through, it's certainly worth a watch, especially for you avant-garde film fans out there!
And that brings us to this year’s Best Picture winner, The Sting. Fun and sassy, this film was certainly the most “Hollywood-y” of all these movies. Not only did it star two classic stars of the silver screen, it harkened back to those early days of moviemaking, when pretty boys got away with dirty deeds.
Was it deserving of its win? I think so. In today’s world, movies like Cries and Whispers and even The Exorcist may have stood a better chance of winning, but this 30’s style swindle sits comfortably between two other crime-related Best Picture wins, The Godfather (1973) and The Godfather: Part II (1975). For whatever reason, bad guys finished first in 1970s Hollywood.
Onto the next pull!