The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1980

This one hurts. One of the quintessential terrible Academy decisions. Maybe it could have been made slightly better by it not also winning Best Director, but even so — Ordinary People is just a terrible, terrible Best Picture choice by sheer virtue of the fact that it beat Raging Bull. Just — ouch.

The film also won Best Director for Robert Redford (talked about here) and Best Supporting Actor for Timothy Hutton (talked about here). The Redford win (despite getting him an Oscar) is terrible. Scorsese should win this cold. And Hutton — great performance, but he’s the lead. So it’s kind of category fraud. Best Actor this year was Robert De Niro for Raging Bull (talked about here). Thank god they didn’t ignore that performance too. Best Actress was Sissy Spacek for Coal Miner’s Daughter (talked about here). It was a close call between her and Mary Tyler Moore for Ordinary People, but overall, I feel the better decision was made. And Best Supporting Actress was Mary Steenburgen for Melvin and Howard (talked about here), which — meh. Take it or leave it.

Again, another perfectly good year ruined by a terrible Best Picture and Best Director choice. I know the Academy is always gonna be the Academy, but wow, has this one looked worse over time.


And the nominees were…

Coal Miner’s Daughter (Universal)

The Elephant Man (Paramount)

Ordinary People (Paramount)

Raging Bull (United Artists)

Tess (Columbia)

Coal Miner’s Daughter — This film is a biopic of Loretta Lynn. We follow her from when she is, twelve, I think, married to Tommy Lee Jones, and mother of a bunch of children by the time she’s twenty, and how she became this country music sensation. And we see her rise up, have a nervous breakdown, then have that big redemption moment when she returns and sings. It’s a standard musical biopic. Sissy Spacek is terrific in it.

The film itself is good, but a bit to standard and generic (in the specific literal of the word) to win. It’s like Walk the Line, in a way. Both good films, but both too standard to really be considered a Best Picture.

The Elephant Man — Oh man, this film is such a classic. I’m amazed I didn’t get around to seeing this until the Oscar Quest. I knew of the film, but I really didn’t know how good it was until I saw it. It’s weird that this film (and maybe I’m only going by my own personal experience, but even so, if I’m actively looking for movies and never quite got around to this, what does it mean for the people who aren’t?) isn’t of a higher profile, historically, than it is.

The film is about John Merrick, the titular elephant man. We see Anthony Hopkins, a physician, encounter Merrick being cruelly treated as a circus sideshow act. And he takes in Merrick into his care and helps treat him. and he discovers that Merrick, who was considered to be unintelligent, is actually quite bright, and regularly quotes Bible passages. And the film is pretty much about Hopkins’s attempts to treat Merrick, and help him be (somewhat) accepted into society. The film’s famous line is, of course, “I am not an animal, I am a human being!” And that’s the film. It’s amazing. Seriously. I don’t think David Lynch has been any better than he was here. Sure, he’s been more Lynchian, but I don’t think any of his other films are quite as good as this one. Damn shame it never got more recognition than it did.

Ordinary People — I hate having to talk about this film. Because it’s hard separating the actual film from the fact that it won. So I’ll say up front that this film shouldn’t have won Best Picture (or Best Director), and we’ll leave it at that. Don’t let that influence how good the film actually is.

The film is about Timothy Hutton, a boy who has attempted suicide. He’s done so because his older brother died in a boating accident. The two of them got into an accident and the brother died making sure he was safe. And we see him going to a psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch), and talking about the suicide attempt. And over the course of their discussions, as well as glimpses into his home life, we see why Hutton attempted suicide. His father (Donald Sutherland) tries to connect with him but cannot, and his mother (Mary Tyler Moore), who favored his older brother, has completely shut herself off from the world. She’s turned cold to her husband and her surviving son. She wishes he was the one who was killed. She is bitter toward him. To her, the older son was perfect, and died unnecessarily, and because Hutton survived, it’s his fault. When Hutton asks her why she never visited in the hospital, and says that she’d have visited his brother in the hospital, she replies, “He’d have never been in the hospital.” And we basically see that the mother is the cause of all of this, and the end of the film is her leaving the family and Sutherland and Hutton finally bonding.

It’s a really strong family drama and a terrific film. It really is. (The fact that it shouldn’t have won still stands, however.)

Raging Bull — You have no excuse to not know what this film is and what it’s about.

It’s a perfect film and should have won this in a landslide.

Tess — This film is an adaptation of “Tess of the d’Ubervilles.” I’ve never read the book, but I can imagine, like many of the novels that give way to films of this sort, it’s probably very good.

It starts with a priest who tells a farmer his family is actually descended from a noble family. So he tries to regain that nobility. He sends his daughter to a family with the same last name, saying they’re related. But then the man of the family rapes her, and she has a child (which dies). Then she starts working on a farm, and meets a dude she falls in love with. But she tells him about the rape and he leaves her. Then she becomes the first dude’s mistress because her family is now broke and she needs the money. Then the second dude comes back, feeling bad he left her, but finds her with the first dude. So she kills the first dude, because she wants to be with the second one. Then she is arrested and hanged for killing the first dude. Quel dommage.

The story is solid, and the film looks gorgeous, but for me it was long and boring. It’s a three hour film, and I really feel like they could have told this story in an hour less. I was just clawing my eyes out at this one, so I can’t, for the life of me, see why it should have won this award.

My Thoughts: It’s not even close how badly Raging Bull should have won this.

My Vote: Raging Bull

Should Have Won: Raging Bull. Or The Elephant Man. We would have accepted that too.

Is the result acceptable?: Top five worst decisions of all time.

Ones I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen Raging Bull, you’re dead to me.

If you haven’t seen The Elephant Man, we’re not friends.

You should see Ordinary People, because it’s actually a strong film. It just shouldn’t have won.

You should also see Coal Miner’s Daughter. Because it’s terrific. Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones are amazing, and she won for it, which is just added incentive.

Tess — meh. I didn’t like it. It looked good, but it was like watching paint dry.


5) Tess

4) Coal Miner’s Daughter

3) Ordinary People

2) The Elephant Man

1) Raging Bull

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