The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1981
I think we can all agree Chariots of Fire is probably the single worst Best Picture-winning film of all time. (I think it’s between that, The Broadway Melody and Cavalcade. Though those two have an excuse, being within the first six years of the Oscars. This one has no excuse.) There are many reasons why it won, but even so — it was a terrible choice. The film only won one major Oscar, showing that it won only because the Academy didn’t want to vote for the alternatives.
Best Actor this year went to Henry Fonda for On Golden Pond (talked about here), an Oscar that was 41 years overdue. Even though Dudley Moore was in Arthur this year, Fonda was a great choice. And Katherine Hepburn winning Best Actress for the film (talked about here) is a nice sentimental choice. It wouldn’t have been my choice (that would have been Marsha Mason in Only When I Laugh), but it works, and it doesn’t interrupt anything. So it’s a nice pair with Fonda. Best Supporting Actor this year was John Gielgud for Arthur (talked about here), which is just terrific. He’s awesome, and he’s awesome in the film. A perfect decision. Best Supporting Actress was Maureen Stapleton for Reds (talked about here). Another veteran Oscar (even though pretty much everyone else in the category was better than her, specifically Jane Fonda and Elizabeth McGovern). Warren Beatty also won Best Director for the film (talked about here), which was a good choice. He did do a good job, and it did get him an Oscar (plus Spielberg would later win two anyway).
So, really — 1981 is a terrific year… outside the Best Picture choice. Again, another example of how a bad Best Picture choice can screw up an entire year.
BEST PICTURE – 1981
And the nominees were…
Atlantic City (Paramount)
Chariots of Fire (The Ladd Company, Warner Bros.)
On Golden Pond (IFC Films)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Paramount)
Atlantic City — It’s weird to see this film here. It’s like a final holdover from the 70s.
The film is about Burt Lancaster, a peripheral gangster in Atlantic City. I say peripheral because — really all he does is tend to the wife of a dead mobster and run small time lotto numbers. He’s a gangster in the sense that a personal assistant to a C-list actor who does plays in gymnasiums is an actor. And he strives to be more, and gets his chance when Susan Sarandon, a dealer at a casino, gets into trouble. She’s living alone, when one day her wayward husband comes back with another one of his schemes. Basically, he’s got his hands on a bunch of drugs and wants to sell them. And Lancaster ends up getting involved in that, but the husband gets himself killed, and now Sarandon is in trouble, so Lancaster has to protect her.
It’s an interesting film. Not as straightforward as you’d think. That is to say — you’d expect it to be, tonally, certain way. And it isn’t. I like that about it. But otherwise, this shouldn’t have won. It’s just not a good choice.
Chariots of Fire — Jeez. This film. I don’t even know what to say about it.
It starts with a Jewish runner and a Christian runner. They goes to Cambridge. The Jewish one is discriminated against because he’s Jewish. But he’s a good runner. They both are. They decide that’s what they want to do. The Christian one ends up going on a mission in China. The Jewish one trains under Ian Holm, an Italian trainer. He trains for the Olympics. He gets into the Olympics. They both do. The Christian one refuses to race in one of the races because it’s on a Sunday (the Sabbath). The Jewish one wins a medal in his final race. That’s it. That’s the film.
I’m serious when I say this is the single worst film to ever win Best Picture. It’s astounding this got here. Truly astounding. It’s no a bad film, but — it should not have won at all.
On Golden Pond — I love this movie.
It’s about Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, a math professor and his wife. And every summer for the last 40 years, they’ve summered in their cabin on Golden Pond. And now, they’re older and can’t do things like they used to. Like, one day he goes to walk to town and forgets the way and gets lost and is scared about his memory lapse. Stuff like that. And one day, their daughter (played by Jane Fonda, adding a bit of poignance to the role) shows up, having married suddenly. And her husband has a young son, who they leave with Fonda and Hepburn while they go on their honeymoon. And they live with the song for the summer, and — just watch the film. It’s awesome. It really is. Sure, it’s not of much substance in terms of a Best Picture winner, but the film is great. It shouldn’t have won this in the objective sense (though, honestly, against Chariots of Fire…), but it’s a really great film.
Raiders of the Lost Ark — Does anyone not know this movie? (Don’t tell anyone.)
It’s awesome. We all know it’s awesome. It was never going to win because it is an action-adventure blockbuster. But in this category, anything is fair game.
Reds — Ah, Reds. A film that has all the earmarks of Best Picture, yet, for some reason, they didn’t vote for it.
The film is one of the most interesting biopics ever made. It’s meant to be a biopic of John Reed, who wrote “Ten Days That Shook the World.” But it’s told Band of Brothers-style, with contemporaries of him and his wife (played by Diane Keaton) talking about them, and then cutting back and forth to their story.
The first hour of the film is him and Keaton meeting. And he’s a dedicated communist and she’s a socialite who doesn’t know politics. And she becomes intrigued by it because she likes him, and they get involved in the rise of communism together. And then he goes off to Russia while she tries to be an actress and has a fling with Eugene O’Neil (Jack Nicholson). But then she goes to Russia and meets him and they’re reunited (that’s the film’s famous train station scene). And then the second half is basically about the Russian Revolution, and how they’re involved with it. And eventually he writes the book, and also dies from a kidney illness.
The film is big and epic and long. And interesting. It drags a bit and overindulges just a bit, but overall, it is a really solid film. I guess the communism angle (the film is practically a love letter to it) turned some of the more conservative Academy voters off and that’s why they didn’t vote for it. Honestly, though, against Chariots of Fire, this would have been a much better choice, even though it was horribly on-the-nose. It’s weird how we have to measure all the nominees this year against the terrible winner.
My Thoughts: I don’t know. I don’t love Reds enough to give it the win (even though it would be a hands down better choice than Chariots of Fire). I love On Golden Pond, but I’m not sure which one would have been looked upon worse. Still, a better choice. So, honestly, I’m just gonna take Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was clearly never gonna win (they passed up Star Wars, for christ’s sake), but it would have been a real fun choice.
My Vote: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Should Have Won: Anything but Chariots of Fire. But specifically Raiders of the Lost Ark, Reds and On Golden Pond.
Is the result acceptable?: One of the top three worst decisions of all time.
Ones I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, you’re dead to the world.
If you haven’t seen On Golden Pond, we’re not friends.
If you haven’t seen Reds — you need to. It’s long, but it’s incredible. Trust me. It drags about halfway through, but otherwise, it’s a really strong film. Close to essential.
You should just see Chariots of Fire just to see how badly it shouldn’t have won. (You can’t complain unless you’ve seen it.)
Atlantic City is a solid film, but not for everyone. It’s one of those films that, when you read what it’s about, you’d expect that they’d market it a certain way, and then people, when they went to the theater expecting that, would come away disappointed because it’s not that. If you love Burt Lancaster, Louis Malle or even Susan Sarandon, it’s definitely worth checking out.
5) Chariots of Fire
4) Atlantic City
2) On Golden Pond
1) Raiders of the Lost Ark