The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1980

1980 will always go down as one of the worst Oscar years of all time. One of the worst years of all time.

I will sum it up by saying this. Have you heard of Ordinary People? If you have, would you consider that an amazing film? Or is it just a good film that’s pretty plain? Now know that the film it beat for Best Picture was Raging Bull. That’s it.

Best Actor went to Robert De Niro for Raging Bull. That is one of those decisions that’s impossible to fuck up. Best Actress went to Sissy Spacek for Coal Miner’s Daughter. Probably a good decision, I haven’t fully made up my mind on that one. (I’m not not voting for her, I just may think I prefer someone else. Still, good decision.) Best Supporting Actor went to Timothy Hutton for Ordinary People, which isn’t so much a bad decision as much as it is, he’s the lead of the movie. And the category ends up being so weak that just by being the lead and being pretty good he ends up dominating the category. Which is kind of annoying. And Best Supporting Actress went to Mary Steenburgen for Melvin and Howard. Weak category. Really weak category.


And the nominees were…

David Lynch, The Elephant Man

Richard Rush, The Stunt Man

Roman Polanski, Tess

Robert Redford, Ordinary People

Martin Scorsese, Raging Bull

Lynch — David Lynch is one of those filmmakers who is too brilliant for his own good. He’s such a mad genius that, no one’s ever really caught up with him. And even though we can all see something amazing in his films, in a way it’s too out there for most of us to comprehend. It’s almost like Kubrick, but in a different sense. Kubrick was just way ahead of his time. People finally figured out, “Oh wait, he really was kind of brilliant.” Which, I think was kind of appreciated when he was making films, considering many of his films in his heyday were nominated for Best Picture (minus the two “genre” films, which, feels stupid to say, but that is really how the Academy operates. No genre films for them). Lynch though, his films are so surreal that people are like, “I just don’t get it,” and don’t give them the time of day.

I’ll admit, some of his films are a bit too crazy for me. I liked Wild at Heart, but, without Nicolas Cage doing what he does, I probably would not have enjoyed the film at all. I remember watching Inland Empire once and going, “What the hell was that?” But admittedly, I didn’t watch under the right circumstances (are there?), so that needs to get a rewatch another day. I love Blue Velvet, but I think a lot of that has to do with Dennis Hopper. Mulholland Drive is the only film I watch and really just love on a primal level. But even that requires some attempt to stay with it. I think The Elephant Man might be his most classically narrative film, which is why it’s probably the one I could watch most often.

The film itself is just astounding to behold. First off, it looks incredible. It’s also great that two films shot in black and white were nominated for Best Picture in 1980. I love that. The film is, as we all should know, since, it’s kind of a famous story (right?), it’s about the dude born with that condition where he’s got that Elephantiasis, and his skin is all distorted. And Anthony Hopkins is a famous surgeon, and he finds this guy in a carnival, being shown off as a sideshow, beaten by his handler and really being treated like shit. And he brings the guy in to study him, and discovers that he can speak and can communicate rather well. And he gets the board of directors to agree to let him study the man while also teaching him to read the Bible and stuff. That’s pretty much the film. Other stuff happens, but it’s mostly about his desire to be treated like a human being, hence the famous line from the movie, and about how certain people see him for who he is and how others just treat him like an animal. It’s an amazing film. One that, were Scorsese not on this list, this would be my default vote. It’s that good.

Rush — This is a supremely interesting film. Not quite perfect, but, still very creative. It’s a Kafka-esque story about a dude on the run from the police. And he ends up stumbling onto a movie set, not realizing it, and is almost run over by the stunt driver, who actually ends up dying during the shot. And the director, played by Peter O’Toole, who is this crazy motherfucker — so crazy that he’s like, “well, he died. We better keep this a secret. You’re on the run, right? Well, you be in the movie, pretend to be a new stunt man, be the stunt man, and then we’ll both get what we want.” He basically allows a dude to die on his set, mostly because he put him in horrible conditions, and then replaces him with another dude.

And the rest of the movie is this dude discovering how fucked up moviemaking is, and shooting all these stunt sequences, and sleeping with the lead actress, and being manipulated by the director, who is essentially nothing more than the biggest asshole on earth. He manipulates everyone to get what he wants, and pulling all these asshole stunts like showing the dailies of the actress’s very explicit sex scene on the day that her family shows up on set. Things like that. And the film ends up being kind of surreal because, the director keeps assuring this guy he’ll be fine and will be safe during the stunt (the same one the other guy got killed doing), and yet the dude isn’t so sure. It’s so Kafka it’s hysterical. I don’t want to ruin it, but basically, when you get to the final stunt, here’s what we know (and don’t know) — the dude knows the other guy died doing this stunt. He knows that he needs to run a car off of a bridge. He knows that he needs to get out of the car in a certain amount of time. He knows that he needs to go around the back to the trunk, where the actress is, and get her out before they both drown. Now, what he doesn’t know is, if this stunt is actually set the way they’ve been telling him, and if he’ll be safe during any of this. He doesn’t know if he will drown. He also doesn’t know if the actress is actually in the trunk. The director could be telling the truth or not. He’s sadistic enough to do it — especially when he knows his stunt man doesn’t want to do the scene, yet is in love with the actress. And us, as viewers, don’t really know ourselves. Which leads to a great climax to the film.

I’m a real big fan of this movie. I’m glad it was nominated, because it’s kind of an oddball choice to be here. Not something they’d usually go for. The film is also technically very good, because it really plays with the whole superficiality of Hollywood, by having shots appear to be shot one way but actually end up shot in a totally different way. The cheap explanation of this — the one that, I don’t think they actually do here, but is generic enough that everyone would understand — would be like if people were in a car, talking, and then we pull back to reveal they were on a soundstage and the background was all green-screened and they were stationary the entire time. That’s what a lot of this film is. It’s fucking awesome.

Polanski — I love Roman Polanski. He’s made some classic films in his time, but, this is not the film he was going to win for. It’s a long-ass retelling of “Tess of the D’Ubervilles.” The film looks beautiful, but is boring as shit. I prefer me some Barry Lyndon over this. Wow. There’s really nothing I can say about this past — it looks beautiful, is shot slow and meditatively, but is so fucking boring. There’s no way I could ever vote for this film. It’s a shame he didn’t win for Chinatown, but, there was a good explanation for that. Plus he won for The Pianist, which he probably shouldn’t have, and cost Scorsese yet another Oscar. So, he ended up doing okay. Plus, with the whole, not convicted of rape thing for like, forty years.

Redford — Yeah, there isn’t much I can say about this movie. So I’m gonna say, the film is about a son who attempts suicide because he can’t cope with the fact that his older brother died. And he’s in therapy for most of the movie, and works out his problems with his shrink. And his mother, Mary Tyler Moore (playing wonderfully against type), becomes cold to him, because she liked the older son better and has now shut herself off entirely and is pretending on the outside like everything is all right. And his father, Donald Sutherland, is trying to be supportive in every way he can. This is a film that features great performances by the entire cast, yet — just watch it. I can’t say anything more except, watch this, then watch Raging Bull. Do you understand what I’m saying yet?

Scorsese — It’s Raging fucking Bull. Seriously now. This is filmmaking, this movie. This is a film that you can show non-film fans, and they’ll just be fascinated by what they see. This really is moviemaking at its finest.

If you don’t know — and if you don’t, really, why don’t you? — the film is about an unlikely source, which, as I’ve learned, usually makes for the best biopics. When it’s someone who isn’t a hugely historical figure, the filmmakers have more license to make the material more interesting. And more interesting is not to say, less true. A lot of times you can not deal with facts and still get to the heart of who somebody is. Take this one script I’ve read that’s been floating around for a few years now. It’s a biopic of Jim Henson. It’s called “The Muppet Man.” The film takes a bare outline of Henson’s life, the kind you can get by reading Wikipedia and maybe one semi-decent biography, and just makes everything else up. The film begins with him as he’s dying, sick and not wanting to go to the hospital so as not to be a burden on anyone (that’s how he was), and then has him interacting with the muppets themselves. And then we flash back to him as a young man, all the while the muppets sing songs and talk to him. It’s an incredible read, and I bet, if made, would make an awesome movie. And the whole thing really gives you a sense of who the man was, without actually sticking to any kind of cold, hard facts past a basic knowledge. That’s what Raging Bull is.

The bare outline of Jake LaMotta’s life is, he defined himself through what he did in the ring. He would beat up opponents and also get the shit kicked out of him for a living. It’s what defined him. All of his life is defined through violence. And the film shows you this. You see him literally rising and falling through violence. And it’s fucking spellbinding, because Scorsese choreographs the fights internally. All of the fights take place in the ring, and the camera is almost like the other fighter. And there are fucking animal noises and horrible, screeching sounds over every punch, and as you watch these fights, you see who this man is. And by the time the movie is over, you feel you know everything you need to know about this man to understand who he is.

Now, add all that to the fact that Scorsese directed this film so well that — he actually thought he was gonna die while making it. He poured that much of his soul into the movie. He called it kamikaze filmmaking. Raging Bull is like Apocalypse Now. Not only can you see a man pour his soul into a movie, but, you also see brilliance as you watch it. You’re just kind of amazed that something like this was even completed. And interestingly enough, both these films came out in back-to-back years, and neither of them won Oscars. And both lost to family dramas. What the fuck, Academy?

My Thoughts: Even if you have your thoughts on Best Picture, is there ever really a question about who was the best director here? This was fucking disgraceful, and started a long trend of Scorsese losing to actors directing films. Most notably in 1990, losing with Goodfellas to Kevin Costner for Dances with Wolves, and in 2004, losing with The Aviator to Clint Eastwood for Million Dollar Baby. Oh yeah, he also wasn’t nominated for Taxi Driver, and lost in 1988 with Last Temptation of Christ to Rain Man. Now, knowing all that — and I seriously hoped that elicited some sort of reaction, which is why him winning in 2006 was a huge collective sigh of relief for us all — and then knowing, it’s fucking Raging Bull — I think we can all unequivocally say, Scorsese really deserved this one.

My Vote: Scorsese

Should Have Won: Scorsese. (And against Redford, Lynch too. Assuming Scorsese isn’t on the list. Only in that case.)

Is the result acceptable?: One of the worst decisions of all time. Maybe even the worst. I’ll go in and tally everything up when I get to the end of this whole thing, but, definitely top three for absolute certainty. I know they love Robert Redford and all, but, this was fucking ridiculous.

Ones I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen Raging Bull, what is wrong with you? Seriously. It’s fucking incredible. Also, I highly suggest you see Ordinary People, just so you can hold it up against Raging Bull, and see why everyone gets so upset. It’s not a bad movie, by any means, it’s just — watch it. You’ll see. I probably wouldn’t be recommending it that highly if it hadn’t won. And I highly, highly recommend The Elephant Man. Holy shit is that movie incredible. Probably David Lynch’s finest work, along with Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. This is counting his films and not counting Twin Peaks. Also, The Stunt Man is a crazy, fucked up and fun Kafka-esque film. I don’t think it carries universal appeal, but, for people at least film-intelligent (that is, watching editing patterns and camera set-ups and stuff), this is a real fun film to watch. They really do some fun things with the camera.


5) Redford

4) Polanski

3) Rush

2) Lynch

1) Scorsese

One response

  1. Definitely one of the worst picks of the Academy ever. Agreed, not a bad film – but not Raging Bull’s level by any means. The crux of it is though, what is the Academy’s membership made up of most? Actors. Hence, people vote for their buddies and major screw ups like this happen.

    April 18, 2011 at 2:17 pm

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