Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 58
Part 58: 1971
Five Easy Pieces (hidden gem)
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Starring: George C. Scott, Karl Malden, David Bauer, Edward Binns, John Doucette, Michael Strong, Peter Barkworth, Lawrence Dobkin, Paul Stevens, Morgan Paull, Stephen Young, James Edwards, Tim Considine, Michael Bates, Jack Gwillim, Gerald Flood, John Barrie, Frank Latimore, Karl Michael Vogler, Richard Munch, Siegfried Rauch
Oscar Wins: Best Actor (George C. Scott), Best Art Direction, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture
Other Nominations: Best Cinematography, Best Original Music, Best Visual Effects
“I love it, God help me, I do love it. I love it more than my life.”
So speaks Gen. George S. Patton (George C. Scott) about war in the movie, Patton. The opening scene, which shows Patton against the backdrop of the American flag, is perhaps the most iconic scene in this film about one of the most fascinating men to ever serve in the military. Patton was a “…romantic warrior lost in contemporary times,”…a man who damn-well loved war, yet was surprised when men near to him were killed. He wrote poetry, believed in reincarnation and quoted the Bible, yet attacked men who didn’t share his manly-man values. I bet he even loved the smell of napalm in the morning.
Patton begins well into the life of its title character, with the General arriving in Tunisia in 1943 to take command of the US army. From there, he moves his troops to Sicily, where they take Palermo before moving to Messina.
Along the way, Patton’s verbal and physical abuse of a soldier suffering from “battle fatigue” – which he believes to be cowardice – becomes ammunition for his critics. He is told to offer a public apology, but the damage is done. The only way to punish a man like Patton is to remove him from the battlefield. He’s forced to stand by as decoy during the Normandy invasion, which – for Patton – seems akin to solitary confinement. “The last great opportunity of a lifetime and I’m left out of it? God will not allow it to happen!” he rants. His swagger was his strength and weakness. While he expects unquestioned obedience from everyone under his command, he has trouble offering the same sort of allegiance to his own superiors. He’s eventually given command of the Allied Third Army, with which he pushes across Europe to stop the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge.
Patton is not so much a war film as it is a movie about a man who loves to play war. Released at the height of the unpopular war in Vietnam, Patton was a glorification of the military ethic…the story of a MacBeth who’s stage was the battlefield. Take the scene where Patton is being dressed by his aide, who adjusts his helmet reverently on his head, as if placing a crown. When someone declares that his men don’t know when he’s acting or not, he simply states, “Only I need to know [that].”
He's every bit a character…a man with no personal life…no mention of family, children, friends…all his heart-to-heart talks are with himself. He lives and breathes war, lecturing his subordinates on the history of battlefields, the lessons of Napoleon. He’s a man who outsmarted Rommel after reading his book. Keep your enemies closer, as they say.
Rarely does a person disappear into a role quite like George C. Scott did here. Walter Cronkite, who knew the real Patton, famously remarked that after seeing this movie, he wasn’t sure that he’d be able to tell the real man if Patton and Scott were standing side by side. Scott’s eventual Best Actor win was much deserved and notoriously remembered for his refusal to accept it – claiming he was not in an acting competition.
While Patton does tend to bend the truth at times, it’s overall very enjoyable. It doesn’t show Patton in a heroic light, but a fair one. Indeed, Patton was a man millions cheered, millions hated, and few understood. It’s clear that they certainly don’t make movies, or generals, like this anymore.
Director: Arthur Hiller
Starring: Ali MacGraw, Ryan O'Neal, John Marley, Ray Milland, Russell Nype, Katharine Balfour, Sydney Walker, Robert Modica, Walker Daniels, Tommy Lee Jones, John Merensky, Andrew Duncan
Oscar Wins: Best Original Music
Other Nominations: Best Actor (Ryan O'Neal), Best Supporting Actor (John Marley), Best Actress (Ali MacGraw), Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture
Boy meets girl, boy loves girl, boy marries girl, girl dies. Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme. With a title as generic as Love Story, it should come as no surprise that this movie is a shower of genre cliches: Hot couple? Check. Family drama? Check. Unavoidable tragedy? Check. Cheesy, over-the-top, horrible movie quote that has young teens swooning? Double check.
Yet, Love Story was a cultural phenomenon when it hit theaters. Shot on a $2.2 million dollar budget, Love Story would go on to make $173.4 million at the box office. It was the #1 film in the US for 15 weeks after its release and, adjusted for inflation, is one of the top 50 domestic grosses of all time. So how did this little home-grown film become so successful? The answer, no doubt, lies in its simplicity.
Clocking in at about 90 minutes, Love Story is pretty straight forward. Oliver Barret (Ryan O’Neal) is a wealthy Harvard graduate and feisty hockey player on his way to law school when he meets Jennifer Cavalleri (Ali MacGraw), a free-spirited Radcliffe College music student. They’re opposites in all the ways that make two people “perfect for each other” in Hollywood. He’s wealthy and has a very complicated relationship with his father (Ray Milland), she’s middle class and has a much warmer relationship with her dad (John Marley). He’s book smart, she’s artsy and vivacious, turning every conversation into a jousting match.
Oliver’s parents believe Jennifer to be beneath them, only forcing the two closer together. Eventually they marry, leading to Oliver’s complete estrangement from his father. But they make do. Jennifer gets a job teaching to help pay for Oliver’s law school tuition. The two have a cute house, eat snow off each other’s face, you know, lovey dovey stuff. All seems to be fine and dandy until the couple faces an unexpected tragedy that may alter the course of their lives forever.
If someone were to create a formula for the perfect romantic tragedy, Love Story gets it just right. Star-crossed lovers + a heart-wrenching tragic ending = a sure-fire ace in the hole. There’s really nothing else to distract us from enjoying the budding romance between the two lead characters, and then the inevitable suffering as things start to unravel.
Unsurprisingly, the critics generally hated Love Story, mostly due to its refusal to address the times…but it seemed fans loved it for the same reason…it allowed viewers (mainly women, let’s be real), to cry about something other than the very real death taking place in the streets and overseas. Though it certainly deals with tragedy and death, the movie is very much about life and living in the moment. It’s a movie that spans the generations…a story as generic as its title, one that neither over-promises nor under-delivers. A cultural landmark, for better or worse, Love Story is a love letter to love, loss and everything in between.
Director: Robert Altman
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, Roger Bowen, Rene Auberjonois, David Arkin, Jo Ann Pflug, John Schick, Carl Gottlieb, Danny Goldman, Corey Fischer, Indus Arthur, Dawne Damon, Tamarą Horrocks, Gary Burghoff, Ken Prymus, Fred Williamson, Michael Murphy, Timothy Brown, Bud Cort, G. Wood, Kim Atwood, Dale Ishimoto, Bobby Troup, Marvin Miller, Ben Davidson
Oscar Wins: Best Adapted Screenplay
Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Sally Kellerman), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Picture
MASH is a rare example of a movie that has been overshadowed by its TV adaptation. The 1983 finale of the long-running sitcom remains one of the highest-rated TV episodes in history, with 125 million people tuning in. The 1970 movie version, directed by Robert Altman, can’t even compare to the series it inspired.
The film is a satirical anti-war “comedy” that avoided the sentimentality of TV show in favor of cruel pranks and hardened cynicism. Leading the charge for what would become one of the best decades in cinematic history, MASH bears all the trademarks of the era: namely a strong anti-establishment message and morally ambiguous characters that (smartly) question authority; however, it also harbors a deep, brutal misogyny that causes this film to stand out like a sore thumb among its peers.
Trapper John (Elliott Gould) and Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) are philandering, boozing, trash-talking, anti-establishment surgeons stationed near the Korean frontline. When they’re not tending to the wounded, they spend time playing football, golfing, and gambling in their pursuit of the female nurses. Hawkeye seems to be the worst of the bunch, aggressively propositioning a female lieutenant and referring to her as “Lieutenant Dish” (Jo Ann Pflug).
However, the cruelest treatment is reserved for nurse Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), who is the only one who has the gall to confront the surgeons about their unprofessional attitude. Eager to exact revenge, the boys use the base broadcasting system to transmit her sexual rendezvous with Major Burns (Robert Duvall) over the loudspeaker, giving birth to her new moniker, “Hot Lips” Houlihan.
Later on, they pull the walls of her shower down in front of the entire camp (and us) in order to settle a bet on whether she’s a natural blonde. When she runs to the commander’s tent in tears about how she’s being treated, he dispassionately suggests she just resign before he returns to the nurse lying naked in his bed. And they wonder why women don’t come forward…
Several critics have joked about how poorly MASH has aged. If it were to have been released today, there’s no doubt that MASH would be on the front lines of the culture wars. The trauma that Houlihan experiences may have been laughed off as a “prank” in the 1970s, but it reads way more like harassment or assault today. It’s the ultimate “boys will be boys” movie, where violence and discrimination against women is written off as comedy.
Yet, MASH remains highly esteemed in Hollywood. In 2017, it ranked #43 in a BBC poll of the greatest comedies of all time. John Mahoney of The Hollywood Reporter called it “the finest American comedy since Some Like It Hot” and “the Mister Roberts of the Korean War”. It’s #17 on Bravo’s “100 Funniest Movies” and #54 on the “AFI” list of the top 100 American movies of all time. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that Hollywood still has such a problem recognizing women. The clear absence of female directors in this year’s Oscar nominations unfortunately makes MASH more timeless than it should be. It seems women in Hollywood are still struggling to be seen as anything more than casualties of war.
Five Easy Pieces
Director: Bob Rafelson
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Susan Anspach, Lois Smith, Ralph Waite, Billy Bush, Irene Dailey, Toni Basil, Helena Kallianiotes, William Challee, John Ryan, Fannie Flagg, Marlena McGuire, Sally Ann Struthers, Lorna Thayer, Richard Stahl
Oscar Wins: No wins.
Other Nominations: Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Supporting Actress (Karen Black), Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture
In the wake of the Civil Rights movement, the sexual revolution, the anti-war fervor, and the draw to television, the youth of America was begging for films that reflected how they felt…movies that offered a level of self-examination and social criticism, which was rare for American cinema at the time. Hollywood, for once, understood the assignment, offering such monumental stories as The Last Picture Show, Taxi Driver, and – one of my personal favorites – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But before Duane Jackson, Travis Bickle, and Randle McMurphy, there was Bobby Dupea…an icon of cinema who recognized the need for freedom and rebellion. A man who played his audience like a piano, utterly confident and able to seduce us into caring for him even when he was incapable of returning that love he attracted so effortlessly.
In Five Easy Pieces, Bobby is so believable and familiar to us because he shares our own fears and insecurities. It’s the very definition of a character study, and arguably one the best American cinema has produced. Bobby embodies the self-destructive sadness that was common to a lot of movie characters of the 1970s, but it resonates more because he’s not a typical protagonist. He’s not lovesick, he’s not a hopeless fool, he’s not even mentally unstable…he’s simply a man lost in limbo.
Bobby (Jack Nicholson) is a voluntary outcast who can’t quite go home again, yet has no way to move forward. He’s stranded between occupations, personas, ambitions, and social classes. He spends his days as an oil-well rigger in the fields of California. His girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black), is a waitress with big hair and a bigger heart. She has two obsessions: Tammy Wynette and Bobby. She’s almost pathetic in her love for him, especially considering Bobby’s lackluster feelings towards her.
You wouldn’t know it, but Bobby comes from a gifted musical family. Bobby himself is a skilled piano player, but didn’t quite have the passion shared by his father and siblings. When Bobby finds out from his sister that their father has suffered two strokes, he makes the decision to return home for the first time in years.
Upon his arrival to the family home in Washington, Bobby is met by his father, Nicholas (William Challee); his sister, Partita (Lois Smith); his brother, Carl (Ralph White); and Carl’s student and lover, Catherine (Susan Anspach). This second half, including the road trip from California to Washington, is filled with several memorable scenes, including Bobby and Catherine’s passionate affair, Bobby’s incredibly emotional talk with his father, and arguably the film’s most famous scene where Bobby tells the waitress to hold the chicken between her knees.
But nothing can quite compare to the final moments of Five Easy Pieces…a vignette that can almost exist as a short story. It’s an ending that would never be allowed today, but one that has all the complexity and depth of the best fiction. It’s the ending the film deserves, one that leaves us still caring for Bobby and Rayette, even if they don’t care for us (or each other). These are characters that are so stuck, so brave in their loneliness, that they seem real.
The film’s title refers to a book of simple piano tunes, easy to master and play. It’s a nod to Bobby’s series of intentionally uncomplicated relationships. He plays women like Rayette as he would “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. Both are easy to read, easy to manage. He has a collection of songs he’s memorized on the piano, songs he played better when he was a kid because maybe he felt something then, but now it’s just routine. And at the end of the film, when he repeats his mantra of “I’m fine” over and over, it’s just the latest in a long line of self-delusions.
Director: George Seaton
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jean Seberg, Jacqueline Bisset, George Kennedy, Helen Hayes, Van Heflin, Maureen Stapleton, Barry Nelson, Dana Winter, Lloyd Nolan, Barbara Hale, Cary Collins, John Findlater, Jessie Royce Landis, Larry Gates, Peter Turgeon, Whit Bissell
Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actress (Helen Hayes)
Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Maureen Stapleton), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Music, Best Sound, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture
The general manager of Chicago’s fictional Lincoln International Airport has a lot to deal with. Not only is there a massive winter storm that’s preventing his planes from taking off, he also has to deal with a crafty stowaway, a depressed suicide bomber, and a whiney wife. There’s also the fact that he desperately wants to divorce his wife so he can be with his much younger co-worker…and he keeps budding heads with his brother-in-law, who is having an affair with a young flight attendant. It’s a disaster to say the least.
It's ironic, I think, that Airport is often considered the first big-budget disaster flick because, unlike the films it would give birth to, Airport is actually quite boring. Filled with way too many characters and plotlines, this movie is just stuck…stuck in the snow and stuck in time. The pace is entirely too slow, the movie is way too long, and it oozes with rampant sexism – but what can you really expect with Dino in the captain’s seat?
The story begins with a series of escalating problems at an international Chicago airport. Mel Bakesfield (Burt Lancaster), the airport manager, is trying to keep the airport open despite a debilitating snowstorm that’s wreaking havoc on the runways.
On a personal level, Mel’s wife, Cindy (Dana Wynter) is mad at him for missing yet another social event. His girlfriend on the side, Tanya (Jean Seberg), the public relations director for the airline, is also threatening to relocate unless Mel can make more of a commitment to her.
Meanwhile, Captain Vernon Demarest (Dean Martin), Mel’s philandering brother-in-law, just found out he’s gone and gotten his young girlfriend pregnant. Vernon’s wife knows he cheats, but complies. He always comes back home, she says.
Adding to the problems is one Ada Quonsett (Helen Hayes), an eccentric octogenarian who enjoys plane-hopping across the country. Through a series of events, she becomes a stowaway on Vernon’s flight to Rome, a flight that’s already delayed due to the weather. And what would an airplane disaster movie be without a bomber? Add Mr. Guerrero (Van Heflin) to the pot, a depressed man who takes out a hefty flight insurance policy and boards the flight to Rome with a bomb in his briefcase.
To say Airport is on the same playing field as the likes of The Towering Inferno or Earthquake would be a vast understatement. In fact, if it wasn’t for the amount of star power the movie had at the time (and the far superior spoof, Airplane!), it probably would have fallen into obscurity by now. The tone is all over the place. Mel and Vernon drive the romantic storyline, while Mr. Guerrero’s storyline adds way too much depression to this supposedly fun film. Helen Hayes offers some comic relief in an Academy Award-winning role, but it’s not enough to get this clunker off the ground. And I’m not even going to go into the other random storylines that weave, no – crash and tumble – their way through an already overfilled plot.
The mother of all disaster movies was clearly a disaster in every way except the box office, where it made more than $100 million and became one of the biggest grossing films of the decade. It inspired a few sequels and was the inspiration for the 1980 spoof, Airplane!, which was honestly the movie Airport wanted to be. When asked about the film, Burt Lancaster called it “…the biggest piece of junk ever made.” Seems the perfect insult, and complement, to the film that gave birth to this over-the-top genre.