Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 28
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 28: 1977
All the President's Men
Bound for Glory
All the President’s Men: Two Washington Post journalists were investigating a routine break-in at the Democratic Party Headquarters when they happened upon the story of the century. Not only did this break-in involve the CIA and FBI, it had ties all the way to the Oval Office.
When All the President’s Men hit theaters, the Watergate Scandal was still fresh in the minds of many Americans. So fresh, in fact, that this film doesn’t even bother explaining it to you. This is a story about THE story…how Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered the truth about Watergate.
Unlike other newspaper movies that play up the excitement and ignore the boredom and research, this film is all about the boredom and research. We see the tireless digging, the haphazard notes and phone calls, the exhaustion that comes with chasing your tail.
The film begins with five men breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972. The story, which starts on the local level, is taken up by rookie journalist Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) as a minor incident. However, leads are taking him to bigger and bigger fish, including the CIA. Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards), the executive editor of the Washington Post, brings on senior reporter Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) to assist in the case.
Woodward and Bernstein begin to dig – and soon it becomes very obvious how tedious journalism used to be before the days of cell phones and the internet! But the nitty gritty digging is what makes journalism so fun, and that’s what makes up the majority of All the President’s Men.
Besides sifting through Library of Congress records and interviewing hundreds upon hundreds of sources in the middle of the night, Woodward also works with a mysterious source known only as ‘Deep Throat’ (Hal Holbrook). This high government official turned whistleblower does his best to lead Woodward down the right path with the infamous quote, “Follow the money.”
As the dig continues, Woodward and Bernstein find evidence of ballot box stuffing, planting spies and running up fake campaign literature. The conspiracy seems to involve everyone in Washington. As all their puzzle pieces start to fit together, Woodward and Bernstein come to discover their white whale: The President of the United States.
In any film about journalism, it’s hard not to let process overwhelm the narrative. In trying to be true to the craft, the movie drowns us in a sea of names, dates, numbers, lucky breaks and false leads. This is all part of the investigative process, but it slows the storytelling down.
President’s Men makes up for it by building tension where we never thought tension could exist, such as Bernstein listening in to Woodward’s interviews and conversations on the extension phone. It also shows how these two reporters battled exhilaration, paranoia and self-doubt in going after the President.
Not wanting to lose Republican ticket-buyers, President’s Men refrains from gloating over President Nixon’s resignation and denies us any emotional release at the end of the movie. The ending is too abrupt which, given the power of the rest of this film, is a minor misgiving – but still, you can’t help but want a more satisfactory end to this insane thriller.
Neither Redford nor Hoffman were nominated for their terrific performances in All the President’s Men. Jason Robards was awarded the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and the movie also won awards for Best Art Direction, Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Regardless of whether or not you’re familiar with the Watergate Scandal, I think you can still find enjoyment in this amazing film. While it doesn’t take the time to really explain the history to you (it came out just 4 years after the story broke), it still gives you enough pieces to assemble the gist of what happened. And, if nothing else, you can stare at a young Robert Redford for 2 hours, which seems worth it to me!
Taxi Driver: “All the animals come out at night – whores, buggers, queens, fairies, junkies…” and murderous taxi drivers.
Taxi Driver feels like a dream…well, more like a nightmare. As viewers, we’re incubated in the feeling of being in a limbo state between sleeping and waking, hazed over with bright lights, never quite sure if what we see is real.
In writing the script for Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader used himself as an inspiration for crafting Travis Bickle. While living in New York City, Schrader battled chronic insomnia, which led him to frequent pornographic bookstores and theaters because they were the only things open. Following a divorce, he remained isolated, which is where he got the metaphor for the taxi. “I was this person in an iron box, a coffin,” he said, “floating around the city, but seemingly alone.”
You know what they say – beware the quiet ones…
Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is a 26-year-old ex-Marine, looking for any job that will help him combat his insomnia. From the outside, Travis is a lonely, sad person who seemingly can still function in society. As time passes, however, he becomes increasingly alienated from the world around him, spiraling into a state of delusion.
To him, NYC is a place of decay, populated by “scum” that needs to be swept away. It’s a city filled with women he cannot have and men who indulge in the dirty underworld. Driving up and down 42nd Street in his taxi, Travis is attracted to the ugliness that comes to the surface here, the horrors of buying, selling and using people. Of course, that’s not to say he’s into that lifestyle – in fact, he hates it, but Times Square fuels his anger like a drug…and he can’t get clean.
During his drives around the city, Travis spots a “beautiful blonde angel” named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a volunteer for Senator Palantine’s presidential campaign. The two go out a couple times, but Travis suffers heartbreak after foolishly taking her to a hardcore porn film. He tries to reconcile, which leads us to the heart of the film. As Travis pleads with Betsy on a payphone, director Martin Scorsese slowly turns the camera to focus on a long, empty hallway. Scorsese called this shot the most important one in the film because it’s as if we can’t bear to watch Travis feel the pain of being rejected.
This is an interesting foil to the end of the film, where the camera literally goes into slow motion to show the violence and horror ensuing in greater detail. What this says about Travis, and maybe about Scorsese, is that rejection is more painful than physical violence.
The next woman to enter Travis’s life is a 12-year-old prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster). Iris’s innocence and youth obviously contradict her profession and Travis feels inspired to try and save her. His savoir complex has little to do with Iris’s well-being and more to do with him wanting to be the hero. After all, Iris is nothing but a symbol to him. His actions may have no basis in logic, but Travis is beyond logic.
The violent actions he takes to save Iris from a life on the streets have been hotly debated for years. I will not spoil anything, but the end of the film is certainly worth discussing with fellow film lovers.
Like any nightmare, Taxi Driver doesn’t tell us half of what we want to know. We don’t know anything about Travis, yet we know everything we need to know of him. He’s dark and twisted, he has moments where he looks purely psychotic, and there are other moments when we can’t help but feel sorry for him. In a way, Travis is a reflection of what happens to us when society turns its eyes away from those who need understanding the most. The only way Travis feels like he’s being seen is by resorting to violence. It’s the only way he feels like he’s doing some good in the world.
Watching this film now, it’s hard not to make a parallel with the world we currently live in. We’re creating more Travises by the minute. We’re isolated by sickness and technology, loosing what it means to be generous and giving. We still lack proper mental health services for those who need it, especially veterans like Travis. And the media continues to turn criminals into heroes, murderers into martyrs.
Network: Ever since the television landed smack-dab in the middle of American living rooms, networks have been using it to shape our thoughts and actions. Rather than giving us the information to think for ourselves, TV made everyone watch the same programming, forcing everyone to form similar opinions.
When Network came out in 1976, audiences were shocked. This bleak view of television’s crassness and irresponsibility was deeply upsetting. Today, it doesn’t seem outrageous at all – in fact, it seems satirical. Network was so accurate in its predictions of how TV would influence the American culture that it gives The Simpsons a run for its money in showing us what would happen to our society in the years to come. While it may not have started as a dark comedy, time certainly turned it into one – a entertaining satire that …”ruthlessly skewers the news industry on a stake, then roasts it alive.”
The UBS Evening News, anchored by veteran Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is struggling with ratings, coming in way behind ABC, NBC and CBS. Believing Beale to be the problem, the network fires him, causing Beale to announce on-air that his contract has been terminated. Not only that, he also announces that he plans to terminate his life as well. “I’m going to blow my brains out right here on this program,” he says. The network is flooded with calls and the ratings skyrocket.
Encouraged by news director Max Schumacher (William Holden) to rectify the situation, Beale returns to the news desk and states that the suicide is off the table; however, with the cameras rolling, he delivers a blistering attack on life in America, calling it “bullshit”. Schumacher is fired for allowing the broadcast to go out but, lo and behold, gets his job back when the overnight ratings show that Beale was a huge hit.
Beale’s crazy tirades encourage program executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) to go after the news division, claiming she can make UBS News the most watched newscast in the country. She gets the job and turns Beale’s broadcast into a cross between a variety show and an evangelical program, with Beale, coined the “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves”, as the centerpiece.
While Beale and his fevered brain love his new format, Schumacher, a veteran of old, classic news programming, is appalled. He fights to end it, but Diana won’t budge. She knows that Howard is not coherent, or even sane, but he is “articulating the popular rage”, and that’s good enough to bring in ratings. He even has is own little catchphrase: “Make America Great Again” err...I mean “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
But the American public can only take so much. Inevitably, ratings begin to drop. Beale’s message becomes too depressing. Drastic measures are called for.
The major point of Network is that ratings drive everything. The broadcast industry knows it, even we as the viewing public know it. But Network helps explain WHY. Too often what the viewing public wants is not the same as what they say they want and it’s the job of the networks to walk that line. We may say we want happy stories, but the truth is so many of us live for scandal, shock, violence and drama. Shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Jerry Springer Show and Mad Men didn’t surge in popularity for no reason. How many people said they were watching Trump’s debates on TV “for entertainment”? I’d wager a lot.
The cast, which earned five acting nominations (and won three) is fantastic. As Diana Christensen, Faye Dunaway won the Oscar for Best Actress this year and it was well deserved. Her character is smart, manipulative, cold and just sexy enough to get her way. Like any femme fatale, she’s just as easy to love as she is to hate.
Peter Finch also won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role as Howard Beale. It was awarded posthumously, since Finch died of a heart attack just 2 months before the awards ceremony. As a man who always seemed to be on the cusp of madness, Finch’s performance here is first-class, portraying a weak man who morphed into the mouthpiece for corporate greed and capitalism.
Network would receive 10 Oscar nominations in total, winning four. Even 45 years later, it still stands as a powerful film about the realities of television and the relationship between our news and our entertainment. As Beale says, “Television is not the truth…Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business.”
And that’s the final message to the audience. It’s just as prevalent today, if not more so, than it was in 1976. In an era of fake news, click bait, cyber tracking and streaming services, networks are more aware now than ever of what constitutes “entertainment” to us, which is perhaps the scariest fact of all.
Rocky: Though Rocky is widely considered one of the greatest sports movies of all time, it’s not really about boxing. Sure, it follows the format of an underdog story, complete with an awesome 70s training montage, but Rocky is less about fighting and more about character.
Note: This review contains spoilers!
Like Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) “coulda been a contender” if he wanted to be. By day, he’s an enforcer for a South Philly loan shark, threatening to beat guys up if they can’t make payment. In his spare time, he works out at the boxing gym owned by a man named Mickey (Burgess Meredith).
Mickey is disgusted with Rocky, mostly because he lacks ambition. He has the natural ability to be one of the greats but refuses to forgo the pleasures of life.
When he’s not fighting in the streets or in the ring, Rocky spends his time at the local pet shop, doing his best to woo Adrian (Talia Shire), the painfully shy sister of his best friend, Paulie (Burt Young). Rocky is in love with her, but his inarticulate attempts to talk to her are echoed by her awkward attempts at avoiding any interaction with him. But the guy is persistent. He even buys two turtles, named Cuff and Link, and a fish named Moby Dick in an effort to get closer to her.
There are also a lot of puppies at this pet shop – and watching Sylvester Stallone play with tiny puppies is a moment I never thought I needed.
Things eventually change for Rocky when Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the current World Heavyweight Champion, hand-picks Rocky as his next opponent. His choice has nothing to do with Rocky’s ability and everything to do with his boxing nickname, The Italian Stallion. Apollo likes the idea of a Black man beating an Italian boxer in the year of America’s Bicentennial.
Realizing he has a chance at the World Championship, Rocky gets to training. Like any 70-something past his prime, Mickey puts Rocky through the ringer, waking him up at 4 am, running him all over the damn city and having him drink raw eggs to help build muscle.
Though he’s committed, Rocky is never concerned with winning. The only thing he wants out of his fight with Apollo is the self-respect that comes with going the distance. More than that, he wants Adrian’s respect, too…which is what makes the end of this film so powerful. He may not have won the coveted championship, but that was never his goal.
With a broken nose and battered eyes, Rocky calls out for Adrian at the end of the match. As she fights through the crowds and embraces her man, Rocky doesn’t even seem to care about the end result. He won in his own way. He earned his self-respect and the heart of the woman he loves. Seems there’s no better prize than that.
While boxing is certainly an important aspect of Rocky, it’s not what this story is about. Unlike most sports movies, Rocky forgoes the focus on sports and instead concentrates on building character. At the beginning of the film, Rocky is far from our traditional hero. He’s crude, ignorant, maybe even a little boorish…but there’s something likeable about him…and it’s rooted in the gentle way he treats Adrian (and the puppies!). As he softly coaxes her out of her shell, their relationship becomes the beating heart of this film. It’s the key to making the ending so meaningful. Sylvester Stallone, who also wrote the script for Rocky, struggled to get the film produced. As a no-name celebrity at the time, Stallone had difficulties convincing the studios to let him star in his own movie. United Artists finally gave in, offering him a measly $1 million budget to produce, and star in, the film.
Stallone got the last laugh, though. Rocky earned $225 million in global box office sales, becoming the highest grossing film of 1976. It received 10 Academy Award nominations, winning three, including Best Picture. A number of sequels have since been developed, the first three of which also made more than $100 million each.
Despite its financial success, it’s hard to justify Rocky’s Best Picture win when it had such great competition. In my own humble opinion, Network, All the President’s Men and Taxi Driver were better films, and certainly more topical for the time…But if its success proves anything, it’s that the world loves an underdog story. In many ways, Rocky’s win was almost as unlikely as Rocky actually beating Apollo Creed, but it stood victorious nonetheless.
There’s a very famous scene in Rocky when Stallone, in training, runs up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, leaps into the air and shakes his fists, triumphant in his goal to reach the top alive. You almost have to wonder if Stallone, the little fighter who could, was sending a message to the entire movie industry.
Bound for Glory: Few singer-songwriters have brought the American experience to life quite like Woody Guthrie. Not only did he influence the likes of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen, he also built a reputation and legacy as the troubadour for the working man. With songs like “This Land is Your Land”, “Bound for Glory”, and “I Ain’t Got No Home”, Guthrie gave a musical and political voice to the voiceless.
But he wasn’t always a household name. Before he got his big break in radio, Guthrie was a man, a husband, a father, struggling in the dusty Texas fields during the Great Depression…and that’s where Bound for Glory begins.
Based on Guthrie’s autobiography of the same name, Bound for Glory is a bit of a forgotten film now, but still stands as a wonderful testament to a man who wrote about unity, solidarity and life on the road. It makes full use of its mid-western setting, taking in the sun and living down in the dust. With an awesome soundtrack and beautiful cinematography, Bound for Glory brings some of America’s ugliest days to life in brilliant color and sound.
The Great Depression was hard on so many Americans, particularly those living in small, rural towns. Dry, flat and dusty, Pampa, Texas was a town hit hard by the Dust Bowl. With a population that was shrinking by the day, Pampa was quickly becoming a ghost town.
Unable to support his family as a sign painter and musician, Pampa resident Woody Guthrie (David Carradine) decides to seek work elsewhere. After hearing great things about California, he leaves his wife Mary (Melinda Dillon) and kids in the hopes of finding work out west.
By hopping trains, hitching rides and walking for miles and miles without anything but the clothes on his back and a harmonica in his pocket, Guthrie finally makes it to California, only to discover there’s little work for little money – and more and more people are showing up every day.
While staying in labor camps, Guthrie comes to realize that workers are receiving little to no pay and basically no job security. He does the only thing he can do – sing about it – which captures the attention of a local musician named Ozark Bule (Ronny Cox), who also uses songwriting to fight for people’s rights. Together these two folk singers score a local radio gig; but things take a turn when Guthrie is forbidden from singing his controversial tunes about promoting the welfare of the working class.
With his family life in shambles and his musical career on the brink of destruction, Guthrie hits the rails again, this time bound for New York. After all, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, right? The film ends with Guthrie beginning the composition for what’s arguably his most famous song, “This Land is Your Land”. As the train takes off into the sunset, it’s almost as if Guthrie knows he’s on the right track (pun intended).
While Bound for Glory was based on Guthrie’s own autobiography, a lot of it is actually fictionalized. Most of the characters are not real and most of the major plot points were added in for dramatic effect; however, the look of the movie is nothing if not genuine.
Every detail, from the cars to the dresses to the living rooms, look straight out of the 1930s. The movie itself feels almost historical. You can smell the dust in the small Texas towns, feel the heat in the boxcars. If you want to know what it felt like to live, sleep and survive in those California work camps, this is the movie to watch.
But Bound for Glory is still a rather slow-moving experience. I don’t know if it’s because of the direction or Carradine’s performance, but I just wanted more from Guthrie…a little more oomph, more personality, more of an indication that Guthrie was actually passionate about his politics – which were so central to his music. The movie felt noncommittal about what Guthrie actually stood for (his obsession with red paint helps the film avoid having to say ‘Communism’), but it made it feel like something was missing. Instead, Guthrie is a charming lady’s man, a guy you’re just happy to know. And while he certainly may have been those things, his legacy proves that he was so much more.
So, Bound for Glory isn’t quite the movie it wanted to be, but it’s still a humble and charming ode to a man who created America’s soundtrack, who used his music to speak to the poor and downtrodden, and who gave us more than 1,000 songs that helped solidify what life was like for those who felt like they didn’t have a home in this world anymore.
Well, 1976 was certainly the year of the underdog.
There really wasn’t a bad movie in this bunch! Films like Network, Taxi Driver and All the President’s Men have actually gained popularity as they’ve aged, mostly due to their topical content and excellent storytelling. Frankly any of these three movies should probably have won over Rocky, but this was the year of little guy.
Bound for Glory, though not as well known as the others, was another inspirational story about a man who dedicated his life to telling the stories of those struggling to make it in this land of opportunity. It brought the Dust Bowl and Great Depression to life in vivid color, something rarely seen in film, and is certainly my hidden gem this year – especially worth checking out if you’re a folk music fan like myself!
And that brings us to the king of the underdogs himself – Rocky. Looking at these films today, it’s hard to justify Rocky’s win over Network, or even All the President’s Men, but its massive financial success alone proves how much the American population needed this feel-good story…how relatable it must have felt to see a man – a macho man at that – still struggle to fight his demons.
From rookie journalists to overrated news anchors, washed up boxers to down-on-their-luck musicians, the films of 1976 certainly proved that the little guy often has the last laugh.
Onto the next pull!