Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 29
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 29: 1973
The Godfather (winner)
The Godfather: The coolest thing about this movie project is seeing the films that defined a genre. Stagecoach set the bar for the classic Western, Apocalypse Now broke the mold for the war movie and Gone with the Wind was maybe the first epic love story put on screen. But no film can really own their genre quite like The Godfather.
You can’t watch a gangster movie today without someone comparing it to The Godfather. A movie about Jewish mobsters is “a Jewish Godfather”…a movie about organized crime better star Robert DeNiro or Al Pacino…even The Sopranos poked fun at the fact that it was basically a TV version of the Corleone family. This 3-part saga didn't follow stereotypes, it created them.
But is it worth all the hype? In short, yup. Yes it is. This is not a film that was just thrown together – this movie was carefully and painstakingly crafted. Every character has development. Every plot point has a reason for being there. And the thing that ties it all together, true to form, is family. Whether it’s father to son, brother to brother, or husband to wife, blood is not only thicker than water – it’s holy.
The film begins in the study of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) who is known as the Godfather. It is the wedding day of his daughter Connie (Talia Shire), and he cannot refuse any request made of him. Acquaintances and friends line up outside his door, asking for revenge, a husband, a part in a movie.
As the Don is making offers no one can refuse, we are slowly introduced to Connie’s brothers, all of whom have come in for the wedding. Michael (Al Pacino), Don Vito’s youngest son and a decorated war hero, is back home with his new girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton). Hot-head Sonny (James Caan) is there as well, as is the weaker pushover, Fredo (John Cazale).
The time is early 1940s New York. World War II is drawing to a close and the world is ever-changing. Though Don Vito still seems very much in control of his domain, his classic pillars of family, loyalty and respect seem antiquated. He remains steadfast in investing in gambling and alcohol, even though those are forces of the past. All the big mobsters have moved onto narcotics, but Don Vito refuses to go there, even with his son Sonny promising higher profits if he backs powerful drug supplier Sollozzo (Al Lettieri).
Ever stubborn, Don Vito refuses to do business with Sollozzo, which strikes the first spark of a war that will last many years and cost many lives. Each of The Five Families in New York will suffer and a new order will soon emerge. Who will survive? Who will die? Who will be betrayed and who will do the betraying? Through it all, the Corleone family will be shaken to its roots by dishonesty from both inside and outside the family.
As the pinnacle character, Marlon Brando is a complicated Don. He’s not a killer, he never mixes business with pleasure and he always puts family first. He seems to understand the burden of power, and his words of advice to his young son Michael show us more about him as a man than any other scene in the film. And as we watch this man morph from Godfather to grandfather, Brando offers us a personae that will go down in history as one of the most imitated characters on screen. Not a bad legacy to leave, for Don Vito or Brando!
But The Godfather is as much Pacino’s movie as it is Brando’s. Michael’s transformation from bystander to central manipulator is not unlike a Shakespearean tragedy. And, by the end of the movie, this man who claimed to be nothing like his family has become more ruthless than his father ever was.
Outside of casting, the overall design of this film is so wickedly poetic. Plot lines compliment and contrast each other, only adding to the depth of this complicated storyline. Don Vito’s dark court session is contrasted with Connie’s bright and cheery outdoor wedding. Michael’s brief romance with Apollonia in Sicily is contrasted with Connie’s abusive home life. And, perhaps most memorably, Michael’s violent actions at the end of the film are shown in tandem with him receiving his sacramental rites so he can assume the role of godfather to Connie’s new baby. It’s the stuff that sends chills down your spine.
Unsurprisingly, The Godfather was a blockbuster hit when it came out in 1972. I mean, is there anyone out there who hasn’t seen it?! It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning three: Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando) and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Though The Godfather put him back on the map and earned him his second Academy Award for Best Actor, Brando famously boycotted the awards ceremony and refused to accept his award. He sent American Indian Rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather in his place to announce that Brando’s reasons for declining the award were based on his objection to the depiction of American Indians by Hollywood and television.
Al Pacino also boycotted the ceremony because he was insulted at being nominated for Best Supporting Actor, noting that he had more screen time than Brando and should have received the nomination for Best Actor instead. DRAMA DRAMA DRAMA.
When we enter the home of the Corleone’s, we’re clearly the outsiders. This is a tight-knit family that has shared many a plate of pasta, but it doesn’t take long for us to be captivated by this intricate and violent world. And by the time we see the haunting final image, we come to understand how the Mafioso policy of “an eye for an eye” has brought this family into eternal darkness.
Deliverance: “We’re gonna rape this whole goddamn landscape. We’re gonna rape it!”
Those are some of the first words we hear in Deliverance, a movie about four friends who take a canoeing trip on a river that’s going to disappear when a dam is constructed in the area. What’s supposed to be a fun trip out with the boys turns into a nightmare when they’re confronted with nature and all her wild, crazy characters.
The movie follows four classic male stereotypes: Lewis (Burt Reynolds) is the alpha male, the guy with the big muscles and the tight vest who is all about physical endurance. Ed (Jon Voight) is the every man, complete with dad-stache. Bobby (Ned Beatty) is the fat best friend and Drew (Ronny Cox), is the moral (and musical) compass.
When they head out onto the river, they are not only battling nature, but themselves. There’s a superiority complex in each one of these guys and they each think they have what it takes to take on whatever nature can throw at them. “Survival,” as Lewis says, “is the name of the game.” But Mother Nature doesn’t play by the rules. As Deliverance progresses, what’s being raped – and who’s doing the raping – will be in flux, both metaphorically and literally.
Not only do these guys treat nature with little respect, but they also dehumanize those who live near the river. They treat the locals of this Georgia town like zoo animals, making fun of their upbringing, the way they look and the stereotypes that surround their way of life. The townsfolk take it with a stiff upper lip, but they’ll certainly have the last laugh.
As Lewis, Ed, Bobby and Drew hit the water, the film gives us a false sense of security. These guys tackle rough waves, rocky terrain and shoot fish in the water with a bow and arrow. These scenes are idyllic, beautifully shot in the real Georgia outback…everything almost seems too perfect.
On the second day, the gang splits up, with Ed and Bobby taking the first canoe and Lewis and Drew taking the second. Ed and Bobby stop to rest and are met by two “mountain men”, one of whom sexually assaults Bobby and forces him to “squeal like a pig”. This is a callback to Bobby’s comment about the locals being nothing but “barn animals” and acts as the symbolic start of nature seeking her revenge on this group.
From here on out, things just escalate. The river they once thought they ‘tamed’ claims the life of one of these men and gravely injures another. With their pride, faith and masculinity destroyed, this group must find the inner strength to “play the game” of survival, battling both natural and inner demons alike.
While Deliverance didn’t win any Oscars (it was nominated for three, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Film Editing), it still became one of the most popular films of 1972. The ever-popular “Dueling Banjos” performance actually won a Grammy in 1974 for Best Country Instrumental Performance and Burt Reynolds called it “…the best film I’ve ever been in…” (probably because he got to show off his muscles 😉).
Though it tackled big themes like environmentalism and the pride of man, I don’t think Deliverance was quite the film it wanted to be. The script is a little lumpy and the characters don’t really seem to learn anything as a result of their actions.
Because of its portrayal of hillbilly and deep southern life, Deliverance must have had the same impact on camping and outdoor adventure that Jaws had on swimming in the ocean. And, ironically, the message holds true in both films. In the battle of man vs. nature, nature always wins.
Sounder: From the cover and title of this movie (and the book, if you read it), you may think this film is about a boy and his dog. While that’s not entirely inaccurate, Sounder is more of a coming-of-age tale about a boy and his father, a family and the land they survive on, and a man’s desire to protect his loved ones.
The story is set in rural Louisiana in the 1930s and involves a black sharecropper family. The oldest boy, David Lee (Kevin Hooks), is on the cusp of his teenage years, young enough to still be a kid, old enough to start helping his father, Nathan (Paul Winfield) with the night-time racoon hunts.
Along with their hunting hound Sounder, David and Nathan hunt not for sport but for necessity. The Great Depression has hit everyone hard, particularly the black population, and most families are left to the primal ways of getting food on the table.
In an act of desperation, Nathan steals a ham so his family can eat, but he’s caught and sentenced to a year at a hard labor camp. This leaves mother Rebecca (Cicely Tyson) to run the farm herself, along with David and her two younger children who are barely old enough to dress themselves.
Desperate to find where her husband has been taken, Rebecca sends David on a quest to find his father. Along the way, he stumbles upon a school filled with black children and is welcomed into the home of the teacher, Ms. Jones, who teaches him about some of the accomplishments of blacks in America. This is a huge contrast to the schooling Nathan was used to – a segregated classroom where he was a back-row, second-class student.
Unable to locate his father, David returns home – arms filled with books about Harriet Tubman and W.E.B. DuBois. After a year or so, Nathan finally returns home, too and the family is once again united. However, David is eager to go back to school with Ms. Jones but is fearful of leaving the family he loves so much. Nathan, who wants a better life for his son, has a very real understanding of the trap that Southern society set for black sharecroppers, and he’s determined to help his son out of it. He agrees to send David away to school and, as father and son set course to Ms. Jones’ house, you can’t help but feel hopeful that David will be one of the lucky ones to break free, armed with the smarts to help him survive.
So, as you can see, the dog for which the story is named after doesn’t really play a part in the film at all. If anything, the dog is more of a symbol of survival than a character in his own film. For a good portion of the story, Sounder is actually absent, having fled to the woods after being injured during Nathan’s arrest. Though David is heartbroken that Sounder ran away, Nathan tells him that he’ll return once his wounds have healed – not unlike how Nathan returns to his own family after his time away at the labor camp.
When you look at this simple story next to the other films nominated for Best Picture this year, it’s hard to make a case for Sounder; however, it’s important to note that Sounder was a bit of a welcome antidote after the huge wave of black exploitation films that seemed to be sweeping the 70s. For many viewers, Sounder gave a valid and honest look at the black experience in America, while also showcasing a strong, resilient black family.
For that reason, Sounder was one of the top 20 highest-grossing films of 1972. It also became the first film to have black leads both nominated for top Oscars (Best Actor [Winfield] and Best Actress [Tyson]).
Yet, the movie’s not flawless. Some of the dialogue sounds as if characters are reading straight from the book and the movie overall suffers due to its unfocused storytelling…but it’s still a powerful portrayal of the black experience in America, as well as the power of hope – hope that an education will save young David – hope that a fruitful crop yield will mean an easier life for this struggling family – and hope that life, in general, will only get better for the generations still to come.
Cabaret: If you’re someone who doesn’t like movie musicals, this is the movie musical for you.
By the 1970s, movie musicals were exiting stage left, making room for the more dramatic films that dominated this controversial and explorative decade. Yet Cabaret would go on to receive 8 Academy Awards and be nominated for 2 others. So why was this film so popular? Simple. It’s a musical for people who hate musicals.
It seems that most people who dislike musicals do so because they’re not ‘realistic’ – meaning characters burst into song, regardless of time and place. In Cabaret, director Bob Fosse turns that on its head. All the songs in Cabaret appear completely natural – in that they’re all performed within the confines of the Kit Kat Club. Outside of the nightclub, Cabaret is all dramedy, exploring topics rarely discussed in popular musicals of the time, including: sex, profanity, homosexuality, bisexuality, anti-Semitism, abortion and, of course, Nazis.
While the decadent partygoers of 1930s Berlin experiment with song, dance and all manners of sexual couplings, Germany is experiencing the very beginnings of the Nazi party. The Kit Kat Club, which is home to American singer Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), offers refuge from the violent streets – not unlike the Moulin Rouge claim, “Outside it might be raining, but in here it’s entertaining!”
Sally knows she can sing and dance, but her real aspiration is to become an actress. When she’s not performing, she’s socializing, partying and sleeping her way to success – all while ignoring the politics that are seizing control of the country she’s called home for the last 3 months. To her, life is all about living in the moment. She refuses to take anything seriously – particularly Nazism – and her emotions and warmth comes off as theatrical. She’s “divinely decadent”, right down to her bright green nail polish.
Though Sally isn’t what one might call a one-man woman, she takes an instant liking to an English instructor named Brian Roberts (Michael York), who moves into her cramped housing facility. Brian is taken with Sally’s free spirit and adventurous personality, though he admits to her he’s not into women (only after the poor girl literally throws herself at him). Although Sally is disappointed, she concludes they’re better off as friends, anyway. We’ve all been there, girl.
But things change when a young baron named Max (Helmut Griem) comes in to shake things up. Though married, he takes an instant liking to Sally – and Sally takes an instant liking to Max’s money. Brian becomes jealous of Sally’s relationship with Max, causing Brian and Sally to take their relationship to the next level…but Brian throws a big ol’ curve ball when he claims that he, too, has been sleeping with Max.
Things get slightly more complicated when Sally discovers that she’s pregnant. Knowing a pregnancy will ruin her chances at stardom (not to mention she has no idea who the father is), she has an abortion, all while her relationships with Max and Brian fizzle like bubbles in last night’s Champagne.
Interwoven into this main plot are shots of the Kit Kat Club, which serves as a sanctuary for those looking to escape reality (an interesting commentary on the musical genre in general). In this variety show-meets-burlesque performance, an animated Master of Ceremonies (a fantastic Joel Grey) uses songs as commentary to the movement of the main plot. For example, a comical rendition of “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes” – a song about a man falling in love with a gorilla – precedes a scene between a supposed German man falling in love with a Jewish heiress. This use of music as ironic commentary places the songs not in the mouths of characters but on the soundtrack floating above and beneath the action.
Besides offering colorful commentary, the cabaret is also meant to entice us, maybe even seduce us. We’re brought into this world filled with visual pleasures and we almost feel naughty being there. The songs are about sex and money, the costumes are racy and theatrical. When compared to the outside world, the cabaret is a world that can only exist in our dreams. Therefore, when – at the end of the film – the cabaret is filled with Nazi soldiers, there’s an overwhelming sadness in realizing that this dream world has transitioned to nightmare.
Now, it’s impossible to talk about Cabaret and not mention the incomparable Miss Minnelli. With eyes as big as her talent, Cabaret shows this born entertainer at her peak, when she was utterly magnetic. Her singing and dancing are sensational – much better than Sally should have been – but her acting in the dramatic scenes is also worth noting. There’s an emotional transparency, a vulnerability, that makes for a heartbreaking performance. And there are moments when she truly seems to channel her mother, which – I’ll admit – gave me a little chill!
As the song goes, “Everybody loves a winner…” and Cabaret certainly gave The Godfather a run for its money at the Academy Awards. With 8 Oscar wins, including Best Director, Best Actress (Minnelli), Best Supporting Actor (Grey) and Best Cinematography, Cabaret became the first and only film to hold the record for most Oscars earned by a film not honored for Best Picture.
Unlike its musical cousins, Cabaret shows us that everything is horrible and suffering is widespread. We already know what a miserable ending this real-world story has, but it still wraps us up in every sequin, sparkle and sexual innuendo. And that’s the great strength of Cabaret. Like “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, a song that’s so rousing and catchy, even when we realize it’s in service of pure evil, the story hooks us and we can’t look away. As Sally herself said, it’s “…divine decadence, darling!”
The Emigrants: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-lost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
These are the lines from the poem, “The New Colossus”, that are inscribed into the pedestal of The Statue of Liberty. It sure paints a pretty picture, doesn’t it? Even before Lady Liberty stood guarding the eastern coastline, North America was a promised land, a place where anything was possible.
In the mid-1840s, the rural population of Sweden was experiencing changes in their economic, political and religious conditions that made life there unbearable. During this time, there were massive Swedish migrations to the US. These pioneers, often traveling in groups, left the land, language and people they knew for the hope of a better life across the ocean. For those who survived the journey, the struggle was only just beginning.
In the film, The Emigrants, a Swedish family abandons their family farm and heads for America, hoping the land, and the opportunities, will be better there. Clocking in at just around 200 minutes long, this film drags a bit, yet it never loses sight of the cost, the fear, the very real human experience of leaving everything you love behind for the mere idea of possibility.
The beginning of The Emigrants shows us, again and again, how difficult life is on a struggling family farm. The Nilsson family, made up of farmer Karl Oskar (Max von Sydow), his wife Kristina (Liv Ullmann), his brother Robert (Eddie Axberg) and a number of beautiful blonde children, is struggling to survive under Sweden’s harsh conditions.
Nearly half of the movie is spent explaining why this family decides to leave Sweden for North America – which basically boils down to the fact that nothing grows in Sweden and religious intolerance is a bummer. It finally picks up a little speed once this group, along with Kristina’s uncle Daniel (Allan Edwall) and Robert’s best friend Arvid (Pierre Lindstedt), decide to hit the road; however, getting there is a whole other bag of pickled herring.
Their journey starts with a grueling 10-week boat trip across the Atlantic, during which a lice infestation is basically the least of anyone’s worries. Seasickness wreaks havoc on the Swedes, as does illness, starvation and death. Poor Kristina, who is perpetually pregnant throughout this entire movie, must not only wrangle all four or five of her kids (I honestly lost count of how many she had), but must also deal with her own deteriorating health. Tempers are short, but these strong-willed folks constantly bend without breaking, instead remaining focused on the endgame, however far away it may be.
Like anyone migrating to the United States at the time, the Nilsson family's dreams of a better life are naïve, desperate and brave – all at the same time. They have only heard stories, can only rely on what they read in books. Some are lucky enough to have relatives in the US already, but most are on a journey to an unknown land, speaking a language no one knows.
Though told from a Swedish perspective, The Emigrants is a film that’s also somehow American – in that it tells the story of what America meant to so many millions of travelers. The Nilsson’s could easily have been a Chinese family, or a Jewish one, and the story wouldn’t be much different. The voyage would be just as long, the illnesses and deaths just as heartbreaking, the spirit of the people just as everlasting.
Well, obviously The Godfather won.
Here’s the thing. All of these other movies were good in their own way – but each one was also flawed in their own way. Cabaret, easily the next best movie in this list, also suffered from trying to tell too many stories at once. Deliverance, while excellently cast, wasn’t quite the movie it wanted to be, refusing to really make a stance about its wishy-washy politics.
The Emigrants was almost too focused, telling a story that could easily have been told in half the time, and Sounder, my hidden gem this year, still wasn’t quite focused enough.
But The Godfather – wow. Excellent casting, excellent storytelling, excellent character development. I was totally prepared to come out of this saying this movie is over-rated, but it’s not. It’s that good.
Despite the lack, or obsession, of focus in these films, the movies of 1972 were all about the American experience, whether that involved coming to America, trying to assimilate into American culture, trying to make a living, or fighting for survival. No matter who we are, no matter how much wealth we may or may not have, all of us are huddled close, hanging on to a dream.
Onto the next pull!