The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1976

I love me some 1976. How can you not? Rocky, Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men, Network… and those were just the films nominated for Best Picture. How stacked a list is that? It’s probably the strongest Best Picture year of all time. And Rocky winning Best Picture, to me, was the best decision, mostly because it’s my favorite film of the bunch. Though I get people feeling otherwise (as long as they aren’t dicks about it).

Peter Finch wins Best Actor for Network (talked about here), which, while it wouldn’t have been my personal choice in the category, is totally acceptable as a result. I explained why in the article. Then Best Actress was Faye Dunaway, also for Network, which had to happen. She earned a statue twice over by this point and gave arguably the best performance of her career. Great call. (Shame about Talia Shire, though. Sentimental favorite.) Then Best Supporting Actress was Beatrice Straight, also from Network (talked about here), which I’m okay with (I think), though I’d have voted for Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver. And Best Supporting Actor was Jason Robards for All the President’s Men (talked about here), which I’m okay with, but I, personally would have gone with Burt Young or Burgess Meredith (not even sentimentally, I thought they legit gave better performances).

So that’s 1976. Awesome, in all, and it ends with this category, which, given the Best Picture choice, was pretty much a foregone conclusion.

BEST DIRECTOR – 1976

And the nominees were…

John G. Avildsen, Rocky

Ingmar Bergman, Face to Face

Sidney Lumet, Network

Alan J. Pakula, All the President’s Men

Lina Wertmüller, Seven Beauties

Avildsen — It’s Rocky. You should have seen it.

Bergman — I have to be honest — I don’t get what it is with the Academy and foreign film directors. It seems as though they nominate the director and not the work. Most of the time. I may not be that well versed in the filmographies of these major foreign filmmakers, but I know damn well that a film like this is not one of Ingmar Bergman’s better works.

The film is about a psychiatrist (played by Liv Ullmann) who is married to another psychiatrist, and has a breakdown. That’s the film. Woman goes nuts. Not like, over the top nuts, like, psychological, surreal nuts. In case you couldn’t tell by the length of this synopsis, I didn’t like the film very much at all.

I’ve seen three Bergman films he was nominated for Best Director for, this Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander. This is by far the least of the three he should have won for. He is clearly a #5 here, and judging by three of the films in question (not to mention the other foreign film on this list that’s better than this), there’s no one who was ever gonna vote for him.

Lumet — Oh, man, Sidney Lumet. Here’s a dude that’s made so many iconic films that it’s a wonder he didn’t win Best Director. Just look at the four films he was nominated for — 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, this and The Verdict. Not a bad resume, huh? We’ll return to this in a minute.

Network, as we all should know, is a brilliant film. A film that accurately foretold the downfall of American television twenty years early. It begins with news anchor Peter Finch getting fired for poor ratings. He’s been doing the job for a long time. Losing his job makes him lose his mind. He goes on air and says, in one week (on his last day), he will commit suicide live on air. This, naturally, boosts ratings. So the network decides to leave him on the air. He begins going on and ranting and raving (the whole “mad as hell and not gonna take this anymore” thing), and rating pop huge. Meanwhile, back at the network, Fay Dunaway is an upstart producer who wants to get ahead no matter what. She’s only interested in ratings and advancement. She proposes to give Finch his own show where he can say whatever he wants (she’s also negotiating with a legit terrorist group for a reality series).

William Holden has been doing the job for a long time. He’s friends with Peter Finch, and is upset at the way things have become so corporate. He objects to the way Dunaway wants to exploit Finch, but doesn’t say anything because Dunaway starts sleeping with him. But that doesn’t last, and neither does Finch’s ratings, because he starts saying shit against the network, and they can’t have that, so they bring in Ned Beatty, who uses Finch’s unstable state against him (he makes him think he’s a higher power) to get him to say things the network wants him to say. Which, naturally, makes the ratings go down, and makes Dunaway decide to actually have him killed live on air. And to make things better, she has the terrorist group do it as a lead in to their series premiere, which comes on right after the news.

It’s a great movie. Lumet directs the hell out of it. And, as I said up there, those four movies up there he was nominated for should equate to one Oscar. They should. Now, 12 Angry Men, he was up against Bridge on the River Kwai — not happening. Dog Day Afternoon — he lost to One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Which, personally, I say he was a much better choice there, between just those two. Here, is here, and we’ll get to that in a second. And The Verdict, he lost to Gandhi, and he was up against Das Boot. So he probably wasn’t gonna win. But the man did deserve an Oscar.

Now, the question is, do I vote for him here? It’s a tough call. Because, are we talking about if I’m in 1976 or if I’m in 2011? And even then, does anything change? So, I’m mediating the whole thing this way — I feel, given the year in question, and the amount of films up against one another, I feel as though people should just pick their favorite film on the list and leave it at that. It’s too tough, and it’s too murky to start mixing and matching Picture and Director. I say, pick one and just go with it across the board. And my favorite film on this list is Rocky. Though, I will say, Lumet deserved an Oscar, so the whole thing is just fucked no matter how you look at it.

Pakula — I fucking love All the President’s Men. I love the idea of a good procedural. And this film is just that. It’s a film that’s about what it’s like to be in a newsroom. The fact that it’s also about one of the biggest scandals in American political history only makes it better.

The film is about Watergate and the whole Nixon thing and all, but — it’s told from the perspective of Woodward and Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman). So at the beginning, there’s the break in, and Woodward is sent to check it out for an article, and then, very slowly, he and Bernstein start uncovering more and more about the whole thing, and soon it starts working its way up the chain, until they realize that the whole cover-up comes from directly inside the oval office. It’s brilliant. Because it’s just the two of them following leads and trying to uncover the truth. Meanwhile everyone’s telling them to drop it, the story is dead, you’re getting a lot of heat on us, all of that. And then they get help from Deep Throat, and he steers them in the right direction, and eventually they get all the names of the people involved.

And the great thing about the film is how it’s not concerned with dealing with the actual history of the thing — that is, they don’t hit all of the beats. And I love that. The film ends with Nixon getting reelected, on a down note. And then there’s a series of typed out new headlines that slowly start connecting the dots until it says, “Nixon resigns.” And I love that the film is totally grounded in this newsroom experience and doesn’t deviate for anything. That’s what makes it so brilliant.

Alan Pakula does an amazing job with this film. Personally, he’d be my second choice here. Either way. That is, based on my favorite films, he’d be second behind Rocky, and based on who I’d completely objectively vote for, all things considered, he’d be second behind Sidney Lumet. But, still, Pakula directed a hell of a film, and, in another year…

Wertmüller — Here’s a surprise nominee. I mean, I can get that they nominated Ingmar Bergman, because, it’s Ingmar Bergman. A director like that, they’re liable to nominate him for anything. So, of the two nominees on this list that are not Martin Scorsese for Taxi Driver, if I really had to hold one up as being the one that took the nomination from him, it would be this one. Granted, I consider this effort more worthy of this list than Bergman’s, but, knowing the Academy, Bergman was always gonna be there, whether I liked it or not. This is the second year in a row they pulled this. The year before this, they nominated Federico Fellini over Steven Spielberg for Jaws! Jaws! Really, Academy? Amarcord? Over Jaws? Anyway, I’m saying the Academy fucked up this year by not nominating Martin Scorsese. I blame Ingmar Bergman, despite this nomination being — fuck it. You understand.

Seven Beauties is an interesting film in that — it’s a tonal shift film. And, in my experience, tonal shift films tend to feel more like experiences. You feel like you’ve really been on a ride with the characters. (This is at least partly why Quentin Tarantino movies work as well as they do.)

The film begins as sort of a slapstick comedy. Giancarlo Giannini is an Italian pimp who has seven sisters. And a lot of the early part of the film is him dealing with this crazy situation. One of his sisters was coerced into prostitution by another pimp. So he kills the pimp to save his family’s honor … and then cuts him up and puts him in some suitcases. And he gets arrested and is sent to the psych ward (naturally). And then he ends up volunteering for the army (it’s WWII). It seems very picaresque, doesn’t it? Yeah, that’s about to change. So now he’s in the army, and here’s where things take that turn. He gets captured and put in a POW camp. And what happens there is, he decides to try to seduce a female German guard (the kind that looks like the warden in one of those lesbian prison movies, to quote Lewis Black). And he ends up succeeding. But — they end up putting him in charge of the barracks. So now he’s in charge of keeping his fellow countrymen in line. And they tell him he needs to pick six men to execute. Any six. Quite the position to be in, isn’t it? They also tell him that if he doesn’t pick six, they’ll kill everyone. He ends up having to execute a friend of his. Then the war ends and he goes home, and he finds all his sisters and even his mother, all alive and okay. The joke at the end being, the reason they’re okay is because they all became prostitutes during the war. Ba dum chish.

The film is very entertaining, though definitely not for everyone. The direction here is actually really strong as well. It does a great job of evoking the tone it wants to. And very rarely am I totally on board with foreign films. Usually I’m like “Yeah, okay, it’s good, but why can’t we give it to an American filmmaker?” Though sometimes, like with the case of 8 1/2, I’m all on board and am totally willing to vote for them. What I’m getting at is — here, I totally got why she was nominated, and I support it. Not gonna vote for it, but I support the nomination. So that’s good.

Seriously though, Academy, you should have nominated Scorsese instead of Bergman. What the fuck is that?

My Thoughts: Honestly, Sidney Lumet should have won this. I know Best Picture and Best Director often link up, but — I don’t have to go by that, since I’m picking 35 years later. But still — Sidney Lumet was, in terms of name, the best decision here. Pakula was a close second. Now, while I love Rocky most, I don’t think Avildsen needed to win here. It’s a catch-22, though, since Avildsen winning helped show some support for the film and make it a stronger winner, where you could say, “Well, at least when they liked it, they really liked it, and went for it.” I can respect that. But, picking in the future — I have to take Sidney Lumet. I don’t think it would look that bad, since in 1967, they had their winner, and went with another choice for Best Director. I think that works in a strong year like this. Plus Sidney Lumet is a legend who never won. I know I voted for him in 1975 and 1981, but he never won. So I’m gonna keep voting for him. Plus, it’s Network. It’s not like he didn’t deserve it.

My Vote: Lumet

Should Have Won: Avildsen, Lumet

Is the result acceptable?: Depends who you ask. I say it’s a fucking great decision. I mean, yeah, Sidney Lumet should have won too, and should have had an Oscar, but, I call that them fucking up again, since he should have won already before this. Some people say others should have won because they think Rocky was a poor choice. This is a real subjective category, perhaps one where the most opinions are to be had — at least, past those that were recent, because the ones everyone was around for, that’s when they have the most opinions. But otherwise, 1976 is a big hot button year, based on all the great films. So I say, for me, this is absolutely acceptable and even a pretty good choice, but I won’t leave that the definitive word (not that I ever would, but say it was something like 1993 with Schindler’s List, I think I can say Spielberg was a great decision and call that pretty definitive. Yahh mean?) on this. So, to each his own on this one. (Though, yeah, Sidney Lumet probably should have had an Oscar over John G. Avildsen. Even though Avildsen also made The Karate Kid.)

Ones I suggest you see: If you’ve lived on this earth, like movies, and have not seen Rocky, All the President’s Men, and Network, you’re dead to me. Also, because it should have been nominated, see Taxi Driver. That’s another essential.

As for the non-essentials, Seven Beauties is a very interesting film and I recommend it if you can deal with foreign films. It’s pretty good. I did find parts of it boring, but it is a very interesting film that I found to be beneficial to me for having seen it. So that’s something. If you think you might like it, I recommend it.

Rankings:

5) Bergman

4) Wertmüller

3) Lumet

2) Pakula

1) Avildsen

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