The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1978
I love 1978. So much. Apparently some people don’t like The Deer Hunter as a Best Picture choice. I do. Very much. So to me, this is a terrific year. It continues a nice streak of great 70s choices.
Michael Cimino won Best Director for the film (talked about here), which makes sense and was well-deserved, and Christopher Walken won Best Supporting Actor for the film (talked about here). I think we all love that Christopher Walken has an Oscar. Best Actor was Jon Voight for Coming Home (talked about here), which, while I wouldn’t have voted for it, is actually a great choice, since it got him an Oscar and De Niro got his second one two years after this anyway. Jane Fonda also won Best Actress for the film (talked about here), which I actually think was a horrible decision, simply because she had one already and Jill Clayburgh was so much better in An Unmarried Woman. And Best Supporting Actress this year was Maggie Smith for California Suite (talked about here), which was a good decision, because she was terrific, and Meryl won the year after this (and because hasn’t Meryl won enough?).
So, really, outside of one decision I don’t agree with, 1978 was pretty perfect. We can only hope for such great years most of the time.
BEST PICTURE – 1978
And the nominees were…
Coming Home (United Artists)
The Deer Hunter (Universal)
Heaven Can Wait (Paramount)
Midnight Express (Columbia)
An Unmarried Woman (20th Century Fox)
Coming Home — This film is Born on the Fourth of July before Born on the Fourth of July.
Jon Voight comes home from Vietnam paralyzed from the waist down. We see him for the first half hour basically learning to live as a paraplegic. And he meets Jane Fonda, a volunteer nurse at the hospital, and they start getting along. And they start a relationship while her husband (Bruce Dern) is still in Vietnam fighting. And one day, he comes back. And he comes back very changed. He’s clearly haunted by what he saw, and has extreme PTSD. And — well, I’ll leave it there. You should just see the movie. It’s really great. Dern is particularly fantastic.
Though, against Deer Hunter, I can’t vote for this. This is a good film, but shouldn’t have beaten Deer Hunter.
The Deer Hunter — Maybe it’s because I saw this film when I was 12, but this just feels like one of those films everyone’s seen. I’ll give a synopsis anyway, because I love it.
Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steve (John Savage) all live in a small Pennsylvania town and work in the local steel mill. They basically spend their days at work, then doing to the bar and hanging out. The film begins as Steve is about to get married. We see them preparing for the wedding (which the whole town is basically involved in) and having this huge celebration afterwards. And during the reception, we find out (pretty much as an aside, too) that Mike, Nick and Steve will be going to fight in Vietnam soon. And then the next day, the rest of the guys (sans Steve), go deer hunting. And De Niro is the one who is the hunter. He loves going hunting. And Walken is his best friend, who is also game to go. The rest of the guys basically treat it as an excuse to go drink beer and hang out. So they do that. And along the way, all their personal stuff sort of comes out (to us, not necessarily out in the open). Like, we see Walken, who is dating Meryl Streep (whose father drunkenly abuses her), who might have also gotten Steve’s wife pregnant. Things like that.
Anyway, out of nowhere (quite literally, to. They fade out and when they fade in, we’re there), we’re in Vietnam. And we see Mike and Nick reunite randomly before being captured. And they get sent to a small POW hut, where the film’s centerpiece Russian Roulette scene takes place. And then the three escape and end up going their separate ways. Steve is paralyzed, Mike is sent home, and Nick ends up staying in Vietnam, horribly scarred by his experiences. And the rest of the film is basically about what happens to these three once they’re out of the army. It’s amazing. It really is one of the best war films ever made.
Heaven Can Wait — This film is a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (which was also later remade as Down to Earth). This is the best version of the story, I feel.
Joe Pendleton, a star quarterback (in the original, a boxer, in Down to Earth, a comedian), dies in an accident. He goes into a tunnel on his bike, and next thing he knows he’s in this weird other-world. He finds out that an angel (sort of) was dispatched to collect his soul from the accident and decided to pull him out beforehand to spare him the pain of dying. He persists that he wasn’t supposed to die then, and, upon further inquiry, it is discovered that he wasn’t supposed to die then. So they go about finding him a replacement body for the time being until they can find him a permanent one. And he gets placed in the body of a millionaire whose wife and lover (his lawyer, I believe) drowned him in his bathtub. And he wakes up as this guy (though still himself inside) and scares the shit out of the wife. And so now he’s him, but as this guy, and has to live as this guy until they can find him another body. And his only goal is starting the Super Bowl, which is in two weeks. So he goes and contacts one of his coaches, Max Corkle (the great Jack Warden), and, after convincing him he is who he is, goes about buying the team and practicing to start the game himself. Meanwhile, he also falls in love with Julie Christie, who is working for a children’s hospital that the millionaire was gonna shut down. So he’s falling in love with Julie Christie (who is falling in love with him and the millionaire, in a way), training to start the Super Bowl, meanwhile his wife and her lover are still trying to kill him. And eventually the wife succeeds in killing him, which upsets him (even though he was told the body was only temporary), because now he’s in love with Christie (who was in love with him), and also because now he can’t start the Super Bowl. However, finally, at the last minute, his permanent body comes through, which just happens to be that of his backup. So he does get to start (and win) the Super Bowl. And then, afterward, he is told that he will now be this guy from here on out, and he’ll forget that he was ever who he was beforehand. And the film ends with him, now assuming the identity of the other guy, meeting Julie Christie (who came to talk to Corkle, whom she’d met with the millionaire), and the two of them feeling an instant connection to one another.
It’s a great, great film. I’m serious. This story is such a classic. It wouldn’t have been remade so often if it weren’t. It’s like A Star is Born. It’s really just terrific. Though, in this category, it wasn’t beating Deer Hunter. It just wasn’t.
Midnight Express — Here’s a film all people should see. You know that joke in Airplane! when Peter Graves asks the kid, “Have you ever been in a Turkish prison?” Well, this film is what it’s like to be in a Turkish prison.
An American kid stupidly attempts to smuggle hash out of Turkey. He is caught and given an unnecessarily harsh prison sentence. And the film details his experiences in the prison. And it’s brutal. Seriously, watch this movie. You’ll see what I’m talking about. It is harsh. And the film is amazing.
If it weren’t for Deer Hunter, this film should have won this year. It’s that good. What a brutal movie. This’ll make you think twice about doing some illegal shit.
An Unmarried Woman — By far the least well-known movie on this list. Which is a real shame, because it’s amazing. It’s like Norma Rae, in a way, in that the film is largely anchored by a strong female performance. And it’s weird for me to see a film nominated for Best Picture because of that. I’m used to the Academy not really showing any love for films with female performances as the focal point (not to mention the industry not really creating films like that).
Jill Clayburgh is a housewife. And one day, her husband says he’s leaving her for another woman. And this crushes her. And basically she has to learn how to be an independent woman. That’s pretty much the film. There’s not really a set story, but it’s really terrific nonetheless. I really feel Jill Clayburgh should have won Best Actress this year. It’s a travesty that she didn’t.
As for the film — it is the weakest one in the bunch, in terms of voting, but in terms of the films — man, this is a great one. It totally deserves to be here.
My Thoughts: It’s The Deer Hunter. All day. Even Sunday. Midnight Expres is second, but I would never vote for it over Deer Hunter. And Coming Home got exactly what it should have gotten — acting and Screenplay Oscars, but no Best Picture. And the other two, while great films, shouldn’t have won. So for me, it’s Deer Hunter all the way.
My Vote: The Deer Hunter
Should Have Won: The Deer Hunter
Is the result acceptable?: One of the best decisions they ever made, for my money.
Ones I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen The Deer Hunter, you’re dead to me.
If you haven’t seen Midnight Express, you don’t really love movies.
You need to see Heaven Can Wait. If you’ve seen Down to Earth but not Heaven Can Wait, we’re not friends. (You should also see Here Comes Mr. Jordan too, but not as much as you need to see this.)
You need to see Coming Home, because it’s amazing. Seriously, see it. Don’t be a schmuck.
An Unmarried Woman is a terrific film, and another one of the best hidden gems in the Oscar Quest. Highly recommended. I don’t throw around the phrase “hidden gem” lightly.
5) An Unmarried Woman
4) Coming Home
3) Heaven Can Wait
2) Midnight Express
1) The Deer Hunter