The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1979
What a way to end the 70s. Though I guess this did foreshadow what the 80s would be. I feel like many people would agree — even those who think it is a terrific film, like myself — that Kramer vs. Kramer is just not as strong a Best Picture choice as Apocalypse Now or All That Jazz would have been. And to be honest with you — I could have actually lived with the choice, had the Academy not also given the film’s director Robert Benton Best Director for it as well (talked about here). Had there been a split, I could have been okay with it. But since there wasn’t, I just can’t be.
The film also won Best Actor for Dustin Hoffman (talked about here), who, even though he was up against Roy Scheider, Peter Sellers, Jack Lemmon and Al Pacino, not only deserved it, but was terribly overdue by this point. So it was a fantastic decision, and Best Supporting Actress for Meryl Streep (talked about here), who, as she tends to often do, blew her competition out of the water. Best Actress this year was Sally Field for Norma Rae (talked about here), which is a fantastic decision (in a tough category, too. Bette Midler gave her a real run for her money). And Best Supporting Actor was Melvyn Douglas for Being There (talked about here), which is the single worst Best Supporting Actor decision of all time. Not that Douglas was bad, it’s just — how does he beat Robert Duvall for Apocalypse Now? Seriously?
So, overall, 1979 is a great year. With a terrible Best Picture choice. Again, could have been lessened by a different Best Director choice, but alas — we must deal yet again with the Academy being the Academy. (Shame, too, since it’s a really terrific film. It sucks when good films beat better films and have to live with it.)
BEST PICTURE – 1979
And the nominees are…
All That Jazz (20th Century Fox)
Apocalypse Now (United Artists)
Breaking Away (20th Century Fox)
Kramer vs. Kramer (Columbia)
Norma Rae (20th Century Fox)
All That Jazz — I’ll preface this by saying that this is one of my top five favorite films of all time.
Here’s the background: Bob Fosse was a famous choreographer. He had a very unique style of choreography, which was basically jazzy and with very sexual movements. He choreographed “Chicago.” And he then branched into films, making Sweet Charity, Cabaret (for which he won Best Director) and Lenny. And what he does (which is much more impressive after you’ve seen the film), is write a movie about himself. This film is a musical about himself. Which sounds egotistical, and it is, except —
The film is about how he’s knowingly killing himself. It begins with his morning routine — Vivaldi’s String Concerto, dexedrine, eye drops, chain smoking. He smokes all day, ignores his health, pops pills — and he’s a workaholic. And the film intercuts his life with scenes of him flirting with Jessica Lange, who is playing the Angel of Death. So he’s basically flirting with death. And we see him as he’s putting on a new show, dealing with his ex-wife and daughter, his girlfriend (who was his mistress when he was married), and his constant affairs. We basically see him confronting all his flaws, but doing it in such a way — he’s not trying to change, he’s merely documenting his deficiencies and showing, “I understand I do all these things.” He just compulsively cheats and ignores his health. Even after multiple heart attacks and warnings from his doctor to take it easy, he doesn’t do it. And this culminates with him having to get open heart surgery (which is a great sequence, since the actual surgery is intercut with the investors of his show talking about facts and figures for the show if he survives versus if he doesn’t), which then precedes a musical number which he choreographs to himself in his hospital bed. It’s just a great, great film. We see this man killing himself, and making a film saying, “I am killing myself.” And what’s amazing about it is, again, how he doesn’t say, “I need to change.” He just says, “This is me.” It’s just incredible. I’ve never experienced anything like it. It’s a masterpiece of cinema.
Apocalypse Now — You don’t get a synopsis for this movie. You need to have seen it. And if you haven’t, don’t read anything, just watch it. You’ll see why it should have won.
Breaking Away — This is a film I had to see twice to truly enjoy. The first time, I didn’t get why it was so good, even though I was impressed by the final race. Then, when I started writing the blog, I had to go back and watch it again to remember what it was about so I could talk about it. And there was when I truly was able to appreciate this film.
It’s amazing. It’s about four friends (specifically one) who are graduating from high school. And the main one wants to be a professional cyclist. He wants nothing more than to race just like the Italians race. He’s consumed by all things Italian. And he hangs out with his buddies and trains. And there are a lot of subplots, like his father being upset that he wants to race and won’t take over his used car lot, and him having an unofficial rivalry with the “rich” boys in town (it’s kind of like in The Sandlot, with the boys on the sandlot against the boys on the team with the uniforms), which culminates in a big race. It’s just a great film. It’s hard to explain. It’s one of those Howard Hawks films. Like Rio Bravo. It’s a film that’s based around the relationships of the characters, and is a hangout film, that also has a story and culminates in an exciting climax. (And it is an exciting climax. I don’t care at all about cycling, but that final race was awesome to watch.) This definitely should be here. Unfortunately it came in a year that was way too strong for it. But it’s nice to see it nominated, because now I can recommend it.
Kramer vs. Kramer — This film is amazing. It really is. It’s only fault, as I always say, is that it won.
The film opens with Meryl Streep putting her young son (Justin Henry) to bed, saying she’s leaving. And then she goes and leaves her husband (Dustin Hoffman), because she’s tired of being a neglected housewife and wants to be something more. So she leaves him, a workaholic, alone with the son, and he’s forced to become a father, basically. So we see him struggling with fatherhood, not knowing how to do anything, and also trying to maintain the pace he had at work. And we does all this, while also struggling with how his wife could just walk out on their son like that. And we see him become a better father over the course of the film, and just when he successfully becomes a single father, Meryl returns. She comes back, wanting to see the kid. And Hoffman refuses. To him, she walked out and shouldn’t be able to see the son she abandoned. Then she takes him to court with a custody hearing, and eventually they find in favor of her because of the common conception that a mother is the best child for a parent.
What’s great about the film is two things: how it subverts the notion that the mother is necessarily the best child, because by the end, we’ve seen how Hoffman became a better parent, and by that point, we want to see him retain custody. So the film basically supports the fact that single fathers can raise a child. That’s a big deal in 1979. And the other thing it does — which is really the film’s coup, and is the reason why it was so successful and won — is that it doesn’t make Streep the villain. Yes, she walks out, but we find out her reasons, and never once does the film judge her. And the fact that it takes an objective look at divorce like that without making judgments is really why this film is so good. It’s a perfect film. It really is. And like I said, the film’s only fault is that it won. Otherwise, it’s absolutely perfect.
Norma Rae — This is another classic. Maybe not as much as some of the others on this list, but it’s still a classic nonetheless.
Norma Rae (Sally Field) works at a textile mill. And conditions are horrible. The workers are paid basically slave wages, and they have no benefits or anything, and they can’t speak up against their treatment or else they’ll be fired. And she works to help form a union for the workers. And we see the mill try to stop her, and do all they can to prevent it from happening, but of course she succeeds and it’s great. It’s — you can’t really give a synopsis for a film like this. You just need to see it.
Anyway, the film is great, it’s a classic, and should be seen by all because it’s basically a female empowerment film. This is a film all women should see when they become teenagers to show them that they can make a difference. That is a message I wholeheartedly support.
As for the film — it shouldn’t have won, and that’s really only because of the strength of the rest of this list. I consider it a fourth choice at best (though for me, fifth choice). Amazing that, a few years after this and this would have been a number one or number two choice. But, it came out in this year. And in this year it’s just not strong enough to beat these other nominees.
My Thoughts: It’s tough for me, since both Apocalypse Now and All That Jazz are in my top twenty favorite films of all time. All That Jazz is in my top five. But, in terms of this category — I feel like Apocalypse Now is too good an achievement to pass up. It just is. I have to vote for that.
My Vote: Apocalypse Now
Should Have Won: Apocalypse Now, All That Jazz.
Is the result acceptable?: No. Kramer vs. Kramer is a great film, but it’s not a Best Picture winner. It deserves almost every accolade it’s ever received except this one (and Best Director). It’s just a bad choice.
Ones I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen Apocalypse Now, you’re dead to the world.
If you haven’t seen All That Jazz, you’re dead to me.
If you haven’t seen Kramer vs. Kramer, you don’t love movies.
You need to see Breaking Away. It’s amazing. One of the best hidden gems on this entire Oscar Quest. Trust me.
Norma Rae is an essential film. It’s so fucking good. You have to see it, so just see it.
5) Norma Rae
4) Breaking Away
3) Kramer vs. Kramer
2) Apocalypse Now
1) All That Jazz