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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 68

Part 68: 1979


  • An Unmarried Woman (hidden gem)

  • Heaven Can Wait

  • Coming Home

  • The Deer Hunter (winner)

  • Midnight Express

An Unmarried Woman

Director: Paul Mazursky

Starring: Jill Clayburgh, Alan Bates, Michael Murphy, Cliff Gorman, Pat Quinn, Kelly Bishop, Lisa Lucas, Linda Miller, Andrew Duncan, Daniel Seltzer, Matthew Arkin, Penelope Russianoff, Novella Nelson, Raymond J. Barry, Ivan Karp, Jill Eikenberry

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Actress (Jill Clayburgh), Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture

From the beginning of An Unmarried Woman, Erica (Jill Clayburgh) and Martin (Michael Murphy) are the couple you love, but kinda hate. They jog together through New York City, they laugh at each other’s minor outbursts of anger, and after almost 20 years of marriage, they’re still physical with each other, making love 5 to 7 times a week.

At home, Martin and Erica share a familiarity that’s evocative of long-term relationships. Erica undresses in front of her husband, and it’s both erotic and casual. Their daughter, Patti (Lisa Lucas) is not only comfortable with her own sexuality, but the sexuality of her parents. This is clearly a home with a healthy understanding of physical and emotional love.

One day, though, swiftly and cruelly, it all comes to an end. Martin breaks down in phony, slimy tears and confesses to Erica that he’s in love with another woman…a younger woman. And, just like that, her perfect marriage is over.

Soon in the grips of divorce, Erica must redefine herself as a self-sustained woman. She gets a lot of support and encouragement from her friends in scenes reminiscent of Carrie and her gaggle of gals in Sex and the City. They talk, they drink, they gossip, they comfort. The conversations these women have about the terror of loneliness, as well as the vulnerabilities surrounding desire and sexual fulfillment (and disappointment) are actually quite remarkable in a film written and directed by a man.

Finally, Erica gets over her excessive drinking and yelling and crying and screaming and goes to see a psychiatrist, who tells her that yes, men suck, but they’re not ALL bad. And so Erica, who hasn’t slept with any man other than her ex-husband for 17 years, decides to jump back in the dating pool.

She meets some duds (and some studs) along the way, but her heart finally settles on an artist named Saul Kaplan (Alan Bates), a man who challenges her, but also desires her. Their relationship is filled with that kind of love that involves not only great sex, but walking down empty streets at dawn and talking until the wee hours of morning about each other’s childhood. He is a man who is both wrong for her, and perfect for her, at the same time.

One of the truly great things about An Unmarried Woman is that it doesn't follow the same route as other films that deal with a cheating husband or a failed marriage. Erica didn’t give her husband a pass on his mid-life crisis and fall into his arms when he came crawling back to her, and she didn’t seek revenge on her husband or his mistress (no bunnies in pots, thank GOD). Erica takes it as an opportunity to invest in herself, creating a new chapter in her life.

An Unmarried Woman is also filled with moments of great tenderness and intimacy. We sit in on Erica’s therapy sessions, where she discusses everything from her first period to her sex life. We watch her dancing alone in her underwear to “Swan Lake” as if no one is watching. The best moment, though, is when she gathers up the reminders of her ex-husband and piles it all in one place. We can easily see how little he’s left behind, but we can also feel how dense his presence is. There’s not much there, but it weighs a lot.

So, what does this movie say about women in our society? This is not a film that states the vast truths about men and women because what this film does state is that there are none. Erica, and maybe the rest of us, are just trying to get by most of the time – and depend a lot on old friendships, quiet desperation, and a lot of white wine to get us through. It’s also a great reminder to women of all ages, races, and in all places, that the most important relationship you’ll ever have is the one you have with yourself.


Heaven Can Wait

Director: Warren Beatty and Buck Henry

Starring: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, James Mason, Jack Warden, Charles Grodin, Dyan Cannon, Buck Henry, Vincent Gardenia, Joseph Maher, Hamilton Camp, Arthur Malet, Stephanie Faracy, Jeannie Linero, Larry Block, Frank Campenella, Dick Enberg, Dolph Sweet, R. G. Armstrong, Ed V. Peck, John Randolph, Will Hare, Lee Weaver, Roger Bowen, Keene Curtis, Morgan Farley, William Bogert, Peter Tomarken, William Sylvester, Jerry Scanlan, Jim Boeke, Les Josephson, Jack T. Snow, Curt Gowdy, Al DeRogatis, Deacon Jones

Oscar Wins: Best Art Direction

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Dyan Cannon), Best Supporting Actor (Jack Warden), Best Actor (Warren Beatty), Best Music, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Picture

It seems the only thing sadder than an athlete that dies young is an athlete that doesn’t die at all yet is whisked off to heaven through a misunderstanding…at least, that’s the takeaway from Heaven Can Wait, a movie one part It’s a Wonderful Life, one part Ghost, but all in all pretty fun.

Joe Pendleton (Warren Beatty) is a man with a dream: to take the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl. Despite being a second-string quarterback and despite the fact that he’s close to middle age, Joe is relentless in his training. He drinks liver smoothies. He jogs, he exercises, he pedals his bike up and down the hills of California. Eventually he’s picked to start in the big game on Sunday – but then he’s seemingly killed by a camper van.

At a way station en route to heaven, Joe discovers that his inexperienced escort (Buck Henry), plucked him up too early: Joe wasn’t destined to die until 2025. Mr. Jordan (James Mason), the middle manager in charge of purgatory apparently, insists Joe be sent back to Earth and given his full time due, but Joe’s body has already been cremated.

The only way Joe can return to Earth is to inhabit the body of someone else. He agrees to temporarily become Leo Farnsworth, a heartless California-based billionaire who has just been murdered by his wife, Julie (Dyan Cannon) and her lover, Tony (Charles Grodin).

Though Joe sees himself in the mirror (and we continue to see Joe as Warren Beatty), the other characters see Joe as Farnsworth. This causes some problems with Julie and Tony when Farnsworth/Joe emerges from the room where he was supposedly murdered, none worse for the wear.

Wearing his heart on his sleeve, Joe brings a different attitude to Farnsworth, which captures the attention, nay – affection, of Betty Logan (Julie Christie), an activist who wants to convince him not to build a refinery near her small town in England. A romance begins to blossom between the two, as Farnsworth/Joe – who once couldn’t care less about environmental issues – suddenly becomes a friend to the Earth.

But the main reason Joe agreed to become Farnsworth was so that he could play football again – and it’s here where Heaven Can Wait is its most charming. While fending off more assassination attempts by his wife and her lover, Farnsworth/Joe also has to convince his old trainer, Max (Jack Warden), that he’s trapped inside another body. He also has to convince the Rams that they want an eccentric billionaire as their quarterback. And, just when things are starting to look up, Mr. Jordan announce that Joe has to switch bodies yet again.

Heaven Can Wait is the stuff of classic screwball comedy. The movie feels like it comes from another era, mostly because it does. With a near identical plot, Heaven Can Wait is a remake of the 1940s film, Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Both were nominated for a slew of Oscars (both undeserving, if you ask me) and both were hits with audiences and critics alike. While Heaven Can Wait, and Here Comes Mr. Jordan for that matter, aren’t BAD movies, they’re by no means great ones. The comedy is fun and both stories get some nice digs at greed, corporate politics, adultery, and even professional sports, but the story still has a lot to be desired.

I haven’t seen the numerous other reincarnations this story has gotten, including a 1940’s musical and a 2000’s remake (starring Chris Rock) both called Down to Earth. The original film, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, was also based on a 1930’s play called Heaven Can Wait. It seems heaven isn’t the only place that can stand to wait a while for Joe Pendleton – Hollywood can wait a bit too before this movie gets yet another treatment.


Coming Home

Director: Hal Ashby

Starring: Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Bruce Dern, Penelope Milford, Robert Carradine, Robert Ginty, Mary Gregory, Kathleen Miller, Beeson Carroll, Willie Tyler, Lou Carello, Charles Cyphers, Olivia Cole, Tresa Hughes, Bruce French, Mary Jackson, Tim Pelt, Richard Lawson, Rita Taggart, Claudie Watson, Sally Frei, Tony Santoro, Pat Corley, Gwen Van Dam, Jim Klein, Tokyo Ernie, Raul Bayardo, Stacey Pickren, James Kindelon, Arthur Rosenberg, David Clennon, Kimberly Binion, Kirk Raymond, Bill Hale, Danny Tucker, Ned Van Zandt, Dennis Rucker, Jonathan Banks, James Richardson, Gary Downey, George Roberts, Bob Ott, Gary Lee Davis, Marc McClure

Oscar Wins: Best Actress (Jane Fonda), Best Actor (Jon Voight), Best Original Screenplay

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Bruce Dern), Best Supporting Actress (Penelope Milford), Best Film Editing, Best Director, Best Picture

Written by Gordon!

There once was a time when Jon Voight was an antiwar activist, and he was a terrific actor. I guess things change.

Coming Home is a movie all about change, transformation, accepting the ways the world tossed you around. Directed by Hal Ashby, who took home an editing Oscar before turning to directing, the film tells the tale of Luke Martin (Voight in an Oscar winning role). Luke is a paraplegic Vietnam veteran who comes back and tries to find his way in life, all the while adjusting to his new wheelchair bound circumstances. Jane Fonda (also in an Oscar winning turn) and Bruce Dern (should have won an Oscar) play Sally and Bob Hyde. He’s a Captain who believes in the cause and is shipping off to Vietnam, while Sally is his wife who stays back and keeps the house a home. She even buys a Porsche Speedster, so you know she’s a keeper.

She volunteers at the Veterans Administration hospital and meets Luke, whom she realizes was a former high school classmate. Things may or may not get weird, and things may or may not happen. You’ll have to see the movie for yourself, but all I’ll say is this: the movie depicts female oral sex on camera for the first time in history.

Voight and Fonda are electric together. Their scenes, as are many others throughout the picture, have an air of realism to them not seen very often in American films. The back and forth between characters is so natural in its flow that one might think they were watching unscripted scenes, or even bits of a documentary. The opening scene was in fact comprised of real vets talking about their experiences and their current beliefs. Very natural and very powerful stuff. You get the feeling from the start that you’re watching something important.

As the movie progresses and we learn more about our characters, we begin to feel we are on shaky ground. Bob returns from Vietnam completely broken and lost. He views himself as a failure of a man, an officer, and a husband. He doesn’t want to go back overseas because he has grown disillusioned with the war effort. He can’t trust the people he once loved. He’s adrift much the way Voight’s character was at the beginning. While Bob struggles to cope with who he is and the way life is, Luke moves forward and finds meaning. He chains himself to the gate of a Marine base checkpoint in a futile attempt to keep others from going off to die. He gets some publicity from this and begins touring as a speaker, usually opposite a pro war voice. Afterall, we here in America love to have “both sides equally represented” even if one side is completely on the wrong side of history. In that sense, not much has changed, has it?

Luke’s character is based loosely on Ron Kovic, a real American veteran who came back from Vietnam without the use of his legs. Kovic began speaking and met Jane Fonda, who was enamored by his words and his story. Kovic’s life story would also go on to become another Oscar nominated film, Born on the Fourth of July.

Coming Home really hits its stride during the climax and denouement, where all three leads tune into each other and deliver some truly superb performances. In the final scene, Luke delivers an impassioned speech to young, draft-aged kids in an auditorium about the dangers of war and nationalism. He is still a patriot and loves his country, but he doesn’t believe in going off and killing for it. The speech was written by Voight too, so the pathos lent to it can really be felt as he delivers his lines. It’s not perfect, but that’s what a man like Luke, or Kovic for that matter, would deliver. It was from the heart.

This is juxtaposed with Bob shedding his clothes, and metaphorically his skin, his responsibilities, his burdens. He stands naked on a beach and runs into the water, and while it’s left up to the viewer what his motivations are, it’s pretty clear he wasn’t just going for a dip. As the Tim Buckley song “Once I Was” plays over both scenes, you begin to realize you might have just watched the best movie of the year, even though that honor went to The Deer Hunter.

If it’s a brooding, murky, self-reflective story that is more aimed at the male psyche and what war does to it, then The Deer Hunter may be your best bet for a Saturday night depression movie.

If you’re more into a human-interest story while still raising that antiwar fist in righteousness, Coming Home might be more the ticket. Either way, you’re in for a treat, and some tissues.


The Deer Hunter

Director: Michael Cimino

Starring: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, John Cazale, Meryl Streep, George Dzundza, Pierre Segui, Shirley Stoler, Chuck Aspegren, Rutanya Alda, Paul D’Amato, Amy Wright, Joe Grifasi

Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Picture

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep), Best Actor (Robert De Niro), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography

I think I need a hug.

The Deer Hunter has the reputation of being one of the greatest movies ever made about the Vietnam War. It’s a three-hour saga, told in three major movements, about a group of three friends as they journey from youth to adulthood to death. You may think – considering its subject matter – that The Deer Hunter is also an anti-war film, but it’s not. Nor is it a pro-war film. Hell, it’s not even a movie about the Vietnam War…it’s a movie about friendship. It’s a movie about love, loss, and brotherhood, and begins – of all places – in The City of Brotherly Love…

Or, close to it, at least. While we may not be in Philly, we’re certainly in Pennsylvania, deep in the furnace of the steel mills. As the bell marks the ending of the third shift, a group of friends head out to the bars to toast life and love. Groom-to-be Steven (John Savage), along with his friends Nick (Christopher Walken) and Michael (Robert De Niro), are not only celebrating Steven’s upcoming nuptials but are enjoying one of their last days of freedom before they all ship off to Vietnam.

The movie lingers in these pre-war scenes for quite a while, spending a good 45 minutes in the wedding scene alone. It’s important that we not only know these characters, but that we feel absorbed in their lives. We learn that Michael is the quiet, unassuming leader of the group, who still likes to have fun now and then. Nick is the guy with the strange attitude to life who declares he’s not eating because it “keeps the fear up”. And Steven is the sweet, unprepared, and woefully optimistic newlywed who tries to make an honest woman out of a girl who got pregnant with another man’s baby. While these scenes do slow down the movie a bit, they are a welcome change from most war movies, where characters are offered basically no development before they’re thrown into a uniform and onto the battlefield.

After the newlyweds drive off, the rest of the group, joined by Stan (John Cazale in his final film) and a few others, head up to the mountains to shoot some deer. While here, there is some Hemingway-ish talk about what it means to shoot a deer…when shooting something still meant something.

In the blink of an eye, quite literally, we’re smack-dab in Vietnam. Director Michael Cimino cuts directly from post-wedding high jinks to men leaping from a moving helicopter. No nonsense with rookie training or boot camp. A wall of noise and chaos brings us into the second movement of the film as Michael, Nick, and Steven all experience the war in different ways.

It’s here, at the center of the film, where we witness one of the most horrifying sequences I’ve seen on screen: the Russian roulette game. As the three friends are taken prisoner by Vietnamese soldiers, they’re forced to engage in a literal battle to the death that ultimately leaves one of them completely unhinged. The game of Russian roulette becomes the symbol of the movie: anything you can believe about the game – the random acts of violence, how it plays with the sanity of man – applies to the war as a whole. It’s a brilliant symbol because it makes quite the statement about how superfluous war is, was, and will always be.

And yes, The Deer Hunter can be seen as the stereotypical, racist American war film. The Vietnamese are shown as violent, aggressive, inhumane monsters whilst the main character, Michael, is the all-American hero everyone loves. Some have called it outrageously right-wing, others say it’s overly melodramatic. But perhaps they’re missing the point here. While The Deer Hunter certainly has a lot to say on the subject of Vietnam, it has more to tell about a generation that went into that war trusting that we had a right to be there, then managing the disillusionment that followed. In the final scene, as the survivors sing “God Bless America”, we can’t help but question the irony. The ending is not patriotic, nor is it anti-American. It’s a heartfelt ceremony, not just for the departed, but for the legend of the flawless and heroic American soldier.


Midnight Express

Director: Alan Parker

Starring: Brad Davis, Irene Miracle, Bo Hopkins, Randy Quaid, Paolo Bonacelli, John Hurt, Paul L. Smith, Norbert Weisser, Mike Kellin, Franco Diogene, Michael Ensign, Gigi Ballista, Kevork Malikyan, Peter Jeffrey, Yashaw Adem, Raad Rawi, Joe Zammit Cordina, Michael Giannotos, Zannino, Tony Boyd, Vic Tablian, Ahmed El Shenawi

Oscar Wins: Best Original Music, Best Adapted Screenplay

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (John Hurt), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Picture

When tourist William “Billy” Hayes (Brad Davis) arrives at the airport, heading back to America from Istanbul, Turkey, he’s a damn sweaty mess. “Nervous?” the guard asks him. Of course not, he replies.

But he is. Billy is clearly agitated, probably due to the 5 pounds of hashish bricks he has taped to his torso. He’s made it past one security checkpoint, but there’s another one right before boarding, which uncovers the illegal drugs. In no time, Billy is aggressively marched off to await his fate.

Entirely out of his element, Billy is off to a bad start. He distrusts the policies in Turkey and he flees at the first opportunity. On top of his drug smuggling charges, his situation grows more complicated when his momentary elusion from the police lands him in a Turkish prison with a four-year sentence, where the bulk of the movie takes place.

The truly deplorable conditions of the prison are nothing compared to the brutal treatment at the hands of sadistic guards. Billy’s crimes, in the context of American standards, certainly don’t warrant the excessive, inhumane punishments he endures, but this is a political climate and the war on drugs is ever-present. Billy is set up to be an example for all dumb enough to follow him.

Through the violence, Billy also finds friendship in fellow prisoners, including the irrational Jimmy (Randy Quaid) and the doped-up Englishman Max (John Hurt). Like many American prisons (at least from what I’ve seen in Oz and Orange is the New Black), money buys better conditions and access to supplies. Those prisoners who have connections can obtain various items for the right price and bribery and corruption are prevalent. But the true torture comes when Billy’s sentence, so close to being over, is extended to 30 years to make an example out of him. Billy and his friends decide it’s time to catch the Midnight Express out of there, meaning finding an escape route and taking it.

While the torture was terrible and the violence was horrific, possibly the worst thing about Midnight Express is that it’s based on a true story. Granted not ALL of the events in the movie actually happened, but at least some of them did, and that’s enough for me.

The portrayal of the Turkish people, and the prison system, also drew harsh criticism with viewers. The director, Alan Parker, tried to calm the waters years later: “I was so concentrated, so determined to make a film about what I thought was an unjust, unfair prison system,” he said, “which just happened to be in Turkey.”

The real Billy Hayes, however, was less sympathetic: “If they don’t like it, they should do something about the system, not the film. You are not seeing the Turkish people, you are seeing the lowest stratum of society, it’s prisons.”

Despite criticisms, Midnight Express stands out as one of the most brutal thrillers of the 1970s, an era obsessed with dark, relentless grim. It reveals the agony and treachery the real world can have in store for you and offers no rainbows at the end. It seems even if you manage to catch the Midnight Express, you will never be the same again.


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