The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1979

I am so disappointed in 1979. And a lot of it has to do with this category. Kramer vs. Kramer is a film I love dearly, but it should not have won Best Picture this year. Apocalypse Now and All That Jazz were far superior films. However, I could have lived with Kramer winning Best Picture had it not also won this category, which is the last Oscar it should have won. Just watching the films, you can see how far and away better Coppola’s and Fosse’s efforts were. Had the Academy recognized that, I could have lived with them thinking Kramer vs. Kramer was the better film. But they didn’t. Which is why 1979 will always be a sore spot for me. (Among another category…)

As for the rest of the year, Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep win Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively, for Kramer vs. Kramer, and Sally Field wins Best Actress for Norma Rae (which I talked about here). These decisions I agree with wholeheartedly. They were incredible, and the best decisions in their respective categories. Best Supporting Actor, however, is a decision I consider to be the worst of all time in its category, and possibly even the second worst single Oscar decision of all time. Melvyn Douglas wins for Being There, beating Robert Duvall, for Apocalypse Now. Which performance do you remember? I rest my case. That decision is really the nail in the coffin for me, and it’s why, no matter how hard I try, 1979 upsets me. Half the decisions are great, and the other half are bad beyond words (or questionable at best). It pains me.


And the nominees were…

Robert Benton, Kramer vs. Kramer

Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now

Bob Fosse, All That Jazz

Edouard Molinaro, La Cage aux Folles

Peter Yates, Breaking Away

Benton — Kramer vs. Kramer is such a great film. It really is. It’s probably the best film ever made about divorce. The problem I have with it — the only problem — is that it won Best Picture and Best Director. Otherwise, I love this film unconditionally.

It begins with Meryl Streep telling her nine-year old son that she’s leaving as she puts him to bed. Hoffman, her husband, then comes home — he’s a workaholic who’s been at the office all day — and they fight and she leaves. The rest of the film then is Hoffman trying to raise his son on his own. At first, he knows nothing about doing all the stuff Meryl always took care of, but eventually, he grows into it and becomes a great father. And the movie does a great job at dealing with things in a very non-cinematic way. That is — it’s not adding extra contrivances to engage the audience. It’s doing it by making it as realistic as possible. For instance, Jane Alexander is one of Hoffman’s neighbors, and she’s been listening to Meryl complain about the marriage for months, and after she leaves, she’s like, “Good for her,” and her and Hoffman have a fight because he thinks she, because she’s divorced herself, led Meryl to leave by telling her it was a good idea. And eventually, they grow close, and she sees things from his perspective. That’s the movie’s biggest coup. It manages to portray nobody as the villain.

And once Hoffman becomes a good father, out of nowhere comes Meryl again. She went away, discovered herself, and now she wants to see her son again. And Hoffman says no. Because he’s been raising the kid all by himself and here she is, just waltzing back, wanting to be back in the life of someone she abandoned. And she gets a judge to order a custody hearing, and they start fighting for custody of the kid, and there’s this tense courtroom scene between the two of them, and then they award custody to Meryl (despite what happened), because they’re operating under the idea that a child is best left in the care of the mother. And Hoffman says he wants to bring the whole thing to trial, but once he finds out his son will have to take the stand and deal with all that stuff, he says okay and lets Meryl have custody of him. And the film ends with a tender moment in the elevator where Meryl has been crying and is going up to tell the kid what happened, and asks, “How do I look?” and Hoffman says, “You look terrific.” It’s pretty great.

The film itself is amazing. In terms of the direction, though, it’s pretty basic. I don’t think anyone can really point to this as a masterpiece of film directing. And the problem with that, especially in this category of all categories, is that it’s up against Apocalypse Now and All That Jazz. Those two films are master classes in film directing. This is not. Which is why I don’t think it should have won. The root of the problem is that the Academy just gives Best Director to the Best Picture winner almost every time, and there are more than a few occasions where it’s just not acceptable. It’s like this past year. A lot of people including myself could have lived with The King’s Speech winning Best Picture had a more worthy choice won Best Director. Obviously most people considered that choice David Fincher, but even Darren Aronofsky, the Coens, Christopher Nolan, David O. Russell — they were all better choices than Tom Hooper. And I think just about everyone who saw those films could agree — Tom Hooper did not put forth a better directorial effort than those others. And that’s the exact same thing that happened here. It’s just not okay.

Coppola — Do I bother with this one? Shouldn’t we all have seen this by now?

Okay, basics. Based on Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Martin Sheen is assigned to go deep in the jungles of Africa to find Marlon Brando. A lot of stuff happens. This film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam. Honestly, if you’ve seen this, you know already. If you haven’t, just sit down and watch it. You’ll be blown away by how powerful it is.

Honestly, I’m not even going to try to defend it. Just watching that helicopter scene alone is enough to award this the Oscar over Kramer vs. Kramer. Seriously, the Academy fucked up royally here. This is your winner. It’s not even close. And I fucking love All That Jazz.

Fosse — Bob Fosse is a mad genius. Not in the David Lynch way, but in the Busby Berkeley way. He’s so on his own level of genius, it’s hard to even grasp. The man directed five films in his lifetime (as well as the famous “Liza with a Z” concert special that made Liza Minnelli a superstar). The first was Sweet Charity, with Shirley MacLaine. It’s famous for the musical number “Big Spender.” That was his warm-up, of sorts. Getting used to the medium. He was, after all, a man born and bred on the stage. Broadway. Then he made Cabaret, which won him Best Director in 1972. I don’t agree with this. I think the film is not as well-directed as his later films. It think the camera is in way too tight on a lot of scenes and it masks a lot of what would make his other films so special. Still, Cabaret is a great film, and the man having a Best Director Oscar is almost a necessity, so it’s cool.

Then he made Lenny, which is a film I love. It’s the biopic of Lenny Bruce, starring Dustin Hoffman. What marks this as a departure from his other films is, first, that it contains no music. And most of all, it’s very deliberately edited. There is a rhythm to this film that really wasn’t there before in Fosse’s work. Plus, it’s in black and white, and is a very unconventional biopic of a very unconventional man. It was a perfect fit, and Hoffman is fantastic in the film. It’s just a great film all around. And then, came this film, All That Jazz.

All That Jazz is a musical Bob Fosse made about Bob Fosse. And before you say, “Wow, that’s egotistical,” let me finish. Bob Fosse made a musical about himself, about the fact that he’s actively working himself to death and is doing nothing about it. That is — the film begins with Roy Scheider, playing Joe Gideon, who is modeled exactly after Fosse — they’re not subtle about it — going through his morning routine: Vivaldi’s String Concerto in G Major, a shower, pills, and chain smoking. And we see him as he deals with all the stresses in his life — putting on a new musical, his many women that he sleeps with, his ex-wife, his daughter, doing all this while simultaneously cutting a movie (which is essentially Lenny. All the clips we see are a comedian doing an act that’s just like Bruce’s) that he spends hours and hours editing (where only he can tell the difference between cuts), stuff that’s just killing him. And during all of this, we cut to him flirting with Jessica Lange, who plays, essentially, the Angel of Death. That’s what this is. The man is flirting with death. And we see him go through heart trouble, have a minor heart attack, and his doctor tells him to get three weeks of rest — and what does he do? Right back to the pills, the work, acting like nothing is wrong. And eventually he has to go into the hospital for major angioplasty, and he spends the whole time drinking, smoking, cavorting with women, meanwhile this dude is literally inches away from death. And he just doesn’t care.

And the whole time, there are musical numbers. Very diverse musical numbers. Like, one that’s a part of his play he’s putting on, one that his daughter performs for him with his girlfriend, and then the two most important ones. First, there’s a musical number he has as a hallucination from his hospital bed. This is the most fascinating, because, first, his open heart surgery is intercut with the financial backers of his play talking about all the numbers — how much it costs if he lives, how much if he dies, etc. It’s a very cruel (and yet realistic) look at how show business works. So he’s recovering from surgery, and he hallucinates an entire musical number from his bed — that he directs. He directs the number and talks to himself, lying in the hospital bed — with all the major people from his life. And the other important musical number is the last one. After all that’s happened, it’s basically him not changing his ways, and embracing death (there’s literally a shot of him embracing death), and the number is a play on the Everly Brothers’ song “Bye Bye Love,’ except it’s called “Bye Bye Life,” and is basically a number about this dude embracing his own death. Check it out:

This entire film is a man basically dealing with his own death. And it’s not like he was wrong. He died exactly as he said he would, eight years after this film was released. But, this film is just incredible on so many levels. It’s just brilliant.

Honestly, as this is one of my five favorite films of all time, you’d think I’d vote for it for Best Director. But, my feelings on this is, Coppola should have won for both Godfather films, so, since Fosse won for Cabaret, I’ll go with Coppola here. Either way, Fosse was better than Benton, so he was a better choice in this category and would have been very acceptable, had Coppola not won.

Molinaro — La Cage aux Folles is a film a lot of people have seen. You just don’t know it. You’ve probably seen the American version of this film, made 17 years later, called The Birdcage. Yeah, this is just The Birdcage, in French.

If you’re not familiar with the story, it’s about a guy who gets engaged to a senator’s daughter, and has to take her to meet his parents. Problem is — he was raised by two gay men who own and live above a drag club. And the girl’s father is very conservative, so him having to meet two gay men above a drag club would not be met kindly, and would probably lead to him not allowing his daughter to marry this man. So, he asks his father to pretend to be a normal, straight man for just two hours. He agrees, and contacts the biological mother of the boy, asking her to play along for the sake of their son. And the rest of the film is basically about all the hijinks that occur as they try to pretend to be normal. The man’s “wife” is very upset at not being able to be part of it and throws a fit, and then they have to make all this food and no one knows how to cook, and they have to find a way to not let on that there are drag queens putting on shows downstairs — it’s very screwball.

And then everything goes almost horrendous from the start. The guy’s husband comes out, dressed as a woman and pretends to be the guy’s mother, and no one notices anything. And then the real mother shows up, and there is no dinner because no one can cook, and then the whole truth comes out, but then they find out the press has found out the senator is in there, so they create a media frenzy outside the place, waiting for him to come out and disgrace him, and they all have everyone dress in drag and start a giant conga outside, which allows them to sneak the senator out. It’s pretty great.

The film is very funny, but I’m not really sure why it got nominated here. Not that I’m complaining. Though it is my #5. Still, very funny though. Just kind of strange they decided to nominate it. Strange choice for the Academy. Doesn’t seem like their kind of thing

Yates — Oh man, this is a great film. It took me two watches to truly appreciate it, but I do love it. It’s just so — laid back and simple. More films should be like this.

It’s about a high school kid who wants to be a bike racer. Like Lance Armstrong. Whatever that’s called. And a lot of the film is him hanging out with his buddies — who are Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earl Haley, all incredibly young at the time. And they hang out, and they’re figuring out what to do with their lives after high school, and this dude wants to be a famous Italian cyclist. He goes around, listening to Italian music, speaking Italian, and riding his bike along the highway, trying to keep up with semis doing 60. And eventually the film leads to a big local bike race where they come in and face the local college cycling team, who of course look down on the non-school people. It’s like Little Giants on bikes. Only, not at all. You know the deal, though. The “legit” team vs. the rag tag crew. And the one dude is really the main cyclist, and the others just join on the team to help him out. And they do the race — which is just thrilling. What makes it so great to watch is that they actually had to be riding those bikes. You can’t fake that shit. So like when you see horse racing movies where one rides past the pack — you can control that. Here, you can’t. I mean, you could, but, you see how hard everyone is pedaling. That’s gonna be really hard to fake. Which makes it all the more thrilling.

Plus the film is just funny. There are a lot of humorous moments between the dude and his father and mother. It’s a really great film. Nice little 70s gem. As for this category, though, I can’t vote for it. I just can’t. Coppola and Fosse are just too damn good. However, this is definitely third for a vote. Just watching how they shot the bike race at the end, you can clearly see how this was more worthy of this award than Kramer vs. Kramer. It’s just baffling all around that it won. It really is.

My Thoughts: Come the fuck on now. Do you seriously think anyone but Francis Ford Coppola or Bob Fosse deserved this one? Kramer vs. Kramer is a great film, but can you honestly say its direction was better than that of Apocalypse Now? All That Jazz? Really? I think even the staunchest defender of Kramer vs. Kramer will admit — this was a reach. The film winning Best Picture had nothing to do with it winning here. It totally should not have whatsoever. Now, as for which of the two I’m voting for — even though All That Jazz is one of my personal top five favorite films, I still say Coppola deserved this one. It’s Apocalypse Now. Have you seen it? I think if you’ve seen it you’d agree.

(Plus, Coppola should have won Best Director for the two Godfather films, and then Fosse should have won here. Fosse winning for Cabaret makes it a lot easier for me to take Coppola here.)

My Vote: Coppola

Should Have Won: Coppola, Fosse

Is the result acceptable?: Absolutely, positively not. Not at all. The direction was good at best. It is not even in the same league as that of Coppola’s or Fosse’s efforts. Not even close. No matter what argument is made here, it remains a terrible, terrible decision. Possibly one of the worst ever. And if it isn’t, the only reason it isn’t is because both Coppola and Fosse had Oscars already. Otherwise, it might be the worst decision of all time.

Ones I suggest you see: Apocalypse Now is a film that, if you haven’t seen it, you realize you must, as soon as possible. If you don’t realize it, then you’re not serious about loving movies. Case closed.

All That Jazz is a perfect film. It’s fascinating in many ways, mostly because it’s so personal, and at the same time, brilliantly acted, directed, edited, and everything else. I think everyone absolutely needs to see it. It’s really one of the best musicals ever made. The fact that it’s one of my top five favorite films of all time only adds to the fact that I think you need to see it. So see it already, why don’t cha?

Kramer vs. Kramer is a great, great film. The performances here are among the best of Hoffman/Streep’s careers. Plus the film is so engaging, because it’s such a realistic look at divorce, where no one is really the good parent/bad parent. It’s a really great film. I mean that, too. My only gripe against it is that it won Best Picture and Best Director. That’s it. Otherwise, it’s an amazing, amazing film that I think all should see. It’s a very affecting, effective film. See it.

Breaking Away is a brilliant film. It’s so simple and low-key, and yet, so wonderful. There’s something about it that’s innately appealing. Plus

La Cage Aux Folles is a funny film, but most Americans would prefer The Birdcage instead. It’s the same film, except with beloved actors, and in English. Unless you like watching multiple versions of films because you’re like me, in which case, go for it. Otherwise, just watching The Birdcage will suffice.


5) Molinaro

4) Yates

3) Benton

2) Coppola

1) Fosse (top five of all time. Had to rank it #1)

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