The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1981-1982)

The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.

I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.

This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.

1981

Warren Beatty, Reds

Hugh Hudson, Chariots of Fire

Louis Malle, Atlantic City

Mark Rydell, On Golden Pond

Steven Spielberg, Raiders of the Lost Ark

Analysis:

Reds. Warren Beatty’s magnum opus about communism. Well, it’s not really about communism. It’s about a communist. John Reed, who wrote the book “Ten Days that Shook the World.” He’s an American journalist who gets swept up in the communist Revolution.

It’s him, Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson. Mostly it’s him and Keaton. We see him becoming a communist, falling in love with her, and then Nicholson is playing Eugene O’Neill, who also is in love with her, and then Beatty goes to Russia and stays behind, and they’re separated for a while, then he comes back, there’s the whole reunion scene at the train station — it’s a long movie. It’s good, though. Be prepared for a lot of scenes of people in meeting halls talking about communist values.

The direction is good. It’s appropriately epic. He also structures it in a style that people hadn’t seen before. Which is basically how Band of Brothers structured their story. Real people (a mix of real and fictional people) talking about the characters as if it were a documentary, and then flashing back and forth from them to the action. This is the classy choice in the category and it makes total sense that he won. I can’t argue this having won. I’m probably going a different way, but I do understand him winning.

Chariots of Fire. I used to call this the worst Best Picture choice of all time. I don’t know if I feel as strongly now. I think it’s a bad choice, but now I understand it more based on what I know about the Academy and how they vote.

The film is about people who run. One kid is jewish and the other is catholic. We follow them in college and then as they run professionally and then all the way to the Olympics. That’s pretty much the film. There’s more. But that’s the general overview of the story.

The movie is fine. I don’t think it holds up very well at all and I’m still surprised that the Academy liked it enough to vote for it. I’m really curious how the year turned out. Because either there was a huge favorite that went down to the underdog, or they had no idea how it was gonna turn out and it was a dogfight to get the most votes and this just happened to win. From the looks of it, Reds had the most nominations, but it was about communism. And there’s no way the Academy as it was constituted in 1981 was going to vote for a movie about communism. And then there was Raiders, which was the populist choice (like Mad Max was), but wasn’t taken seriously by them for wins outside of the technical categories. Atlantic City was never gonna happen, so it became between On Golden Pond and this. And with BAFTA firmly behind this, and this having that uplifting kind of sports feel to it… I understand it. It’s not a choice that holds up, but I do understand it.

As for the direction, I would not vote for it. I think it’s fine, but I’d have him third in the category at best. I don’t even love the movie, but I’d still have him third here.

Atlantic City. No one even knows what this movie is. It was directed by Louis Malle, but feels quintessentially American. And 80s.

Burt Lancaster is an aging gangster who runs numbers (small time). Susan Sarandon is a cocktail waitress whose husband hasn’t lived with her for a while but shows up with a bunch of cocaine he’s gonna sell. He gets Lancaster involved, but then gets killed by the people he stole the coke from. So now, Lancaster is got a full on crush on Sarandon and wants to impress her. So the mobsters are now after her, and he’s trying to be young again and be a big man for her, and it’s actually quite good. Lancaster plays a really pathetic guy you completely understand.

The direction is fine. I like the film. I don’t think I’d consider it any higher than fourth in the category. It looks and feels like a lot of 80s movies. Nothing to make me want to vote for it over any of the major contenders in this category.

On Golden Pond.

I love this movie. I mean, it would have been a bit of a joke had it won, given how slight the subject matter is, but I love it nonetheless.

Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn (both in their final film roles) are an elderly couple who have gone to the same lake house every summer for something like fifty years. Fonda just celebrated his 80th birthday and is basically a cranky old man. They hear from their daughter (Jane Fonda), who has just married a man she met a few months ago, and they’re going on their honeymoon. And his son is now gonna stay with them for a few weeks until she comes back. So they’re left with this kid for half the movie, and a lot of it is the kid being kind of a dick, but then warming to them and becoming a regular nice kid — you know the drill. And then Fonda comes back, and there’s some personal shit that needs to be hashed out (which has an added real life father-daughter element to it). The movie is great. Hepburn and Fonda are so entertaining and so good, and it’s one of those movies you can’t help but love.

That said — the direction is clearly fifth in the category. There’s nothing particularly exemplary about it. It almost feels like a TV movie. The film is great, but there is zero need to even think about voting for it in this category. It’s actually a little surprising that it even got nominated here. Look at Driving Miss Daisy eight years after this. Wasn’t even nominated. This could have been like that and everyone would have understood.

Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s Raiders, man. Indiana Jones, Ark of the Covenant, Marion, “Snakes.” Everyone knows this movie. We’ve all seen it. It’s great.

Spielberg was arguably the best choice in the category at the time, but, in a way similar to this past year with George Miller, the Academy just doesn’t seem to like for movies they consider blockbusters. They had a real vendetta it seemed against Steven Spielberg for a good fifteen years before he finally won. I think this is tops in the category and is gonna be my vote, but I completely understand taking Warren Beatty instead.

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The Reconsideration: It’s either Spielberg or Beatty. I don’t see any other choice as being viable. Rydell is lucky to be nominated, with his film looking like it was made for TV. Malle’s reward is the nomination. It’s fine, but not anything particularly standout. And Hudson — I guess, if you wanted to not split the vote. But I think it’s middle of the pack at best. So you’re left with the two solid efforts of Spielberg and Beatty. I’m okay with either. The Academy went Beatty, I’m going Spielberg. Either is a good choice.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Steven Spielberg, Raiders of the Lost Ark
  2. Warren Beatty, Reds
  3. Hugh Hudson, Chariots of Fire
  4. Louis Malle, Atlantic City
  5. Mark Rydell, On Golden Pond

Rankings (films):

  1. Raiders of the Lost Ark
  2. On Golden Pond
  3. Reds
  4. Atlantic City
  5. Chariots of Fire

My Vote: Steven Spielberg, Raiders of the Lost Ark

Recommendations:

Raiders of the Lost Ark is practically a life essential film. How does one grow up without seeing it? As a film buff, it’s essential.

The rest… ehh.

Reds isn’t essential, but you should see it. It’s a classic, it’s Beatty directing, a lot of Oscar nominations, he won Best Director. It’s definitely something you should see as a film buff, but you don’t need to rush into it. See the big movies first, and get to this around college.

Chariots of Fire is almost essential, but that’s only because it won, and if you want to complain about it having won, you need to see it. That’s how that works. So for people who really care about the Oscars, you need to see it. For film buffs, you can see it, because it is a Best Picture winner, but you don’t need to. And for casual film people — take it or leave it.

On Golden Pond is an absolutely lovely film. I think you should see it because it’s entertaining as shit. Also it won both lead acting Oscars. I’ll leave it as such — if the names Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda mean anything to you as a film buff, then you should see this movie.

Atlantic City is a solid, forgotten film of the 80s. Really well done. Later Burt Lancaster in his last truly awesome role, and a young Susan Sarandon. A crime movie, well made. Not gonna appeal to all, but very solid. It’s worth seeing because of its place in Oscar history, but it’s not essential by any means. This is the kind of story that, nowadays, would have been a subplot on three episodes of The Sopranos.

The Last Word: I say it’s either Beatty or Spielberg. Take your pick. Both are deserving. One is the “classy” choice, and the other is the populist choice. I’m taking Spielberg, but either one is a good decision.

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1982

Richard Attenborough, Gandhi

Sidney Lumet, The Verdict

Wolfgang Petersen, Das Boot

Sydney Pollack, Tootsie

Steven Spielberg, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

Analysis:

Gandhi. As you can tell by the title, this is a biopic of Warren G. Harding.

It’s long, it’s epic, it really captures Gandhi the man. It’s great. You can’t really argue with this having won. Would I vote for it? Maybe. Is it deserving? Absolutely. So we’ll see where it shakes out.

The Verdict. Sidney Lumet again. Why is it that any time he gets nominated there’s always some reason to not vote for him? Definitely goes to back up the notion that he’s one of the most overlooked directors in history.

Paul Newman is a disgraced lawyer who was once a hot shot and is now a drunk ambulance chaser. His friend sends him a case as an act of charity that will basically settle out of court and get him a nice payday. A woman was given anesthesia at a church-run hospital and ended up almost dying and is now in a coma. The woman’s family wants the settlement so they can keep her alive. Newman, however, sees this as his chance for redemption and refuses the offer. So now he’s taking on the church and all their deep pockets. And of course, now that it’s going to trial, stuff starts happening. The star witness disappears, and the defense has James Mason, a top lawyer who practically guarantees a win, and even the judge seems to be working against him.

It is a GREAT movie. It’s really good. David Mamet wrote it, by the way. Paul Newman delivers a powerhouse performance, and arguably should have won Best Actor. The direction is really solid. Potentially worth a vote. Not sure if I would, but definitely something to consider.

Das Boot. Literally, “The Boat.” Sounds way better in German.

It’s about a bunch of men on a German U-Boat. We follow through the eyes of a young officer as the crew members work on this boat during World War II.

The story doesn’t matter, the movie is GREAT. It’s utterly captivating, and much of the movie is shot on the cramped quarters of a submarine. There are three different versions, the original 150 minute version, the 210 minute directors cut (typically the one people watch) and an uncut 290 minute version (which is almost five hours).

The direction is so great. It’s foreign, but it belongs right up there for a vote with everything else in this category. What Petersen achieves is nothing short of astounding. After this movie he made nothing but Hollywood features from then on.

Tootsie. Ah, Tootsie. Most people know this as “the movie where Dustin Hoffman dresses like a woman” but it’s actually a lot more than that. It’s really an amazing movie. I watched it again recently. It holds up.

Dustin Hoffman is a temperamental actor who can’t book a job because people know how difficult he is. He hears his friend is going up for a job as a nurse on a popular soap, and, desperate, decides that since no one will hire him, he’ll audition dressed like a woman. So he goes in and gets the part. And quickly his character becomes the best part of the show. So now he has to pretend to be a woman half the time. And on top of that, he falls in love with Jessica Lange, the female lead of the soap, who has taken a strong liking of her co-star (him, as a woman). Comedy ensues, but there’s a lot of weight to it. It’s not just a frivolous comedy. There’s actually drama here too. This movie manages to do it all.

It’s really great. One of the best movies of the 80s, and a definite Best Picture player, for when we get there. Underrated Oscar year, this one. As for the direction — good. Maybe you can want to vote for it. Tough category, tough year. But worth a vote, which means we keep it in play for later.

E.T. I want to say “oh fuck you if you don’t know what this is,” but that would be overly mean and more in line with what I did last time.

But seriously, it’s E.T. You should have heard of it. Boy finds an alien in the backyard, takes him in, tries to help him “phone home.”

It’s an all-time classic. Another one of those movies where, in 1982, I bet they were super pissed when Spielberg didn’t win, because the Academy just didn’t respect him. Why? Because this movie beat Star Wars to become the highest grossing movie of all time when it came out. And to them, that didn’t necessarily mean a film was “awards worthy.”

Definitely is worth a vote. Not sure what I’m doing, but absolutely is he right there in the end. I think we might have a category with all five as potential choices.

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The Reconsideration: All five are worth the vote, honestly. Some more than others, but I could understand making a case for all five.

The first two off for me are Tootsie and The Verdict. They’re great movies, but the direction for me doesn’t beat the other three. Not sure how I rank them, they’re about the same to me, but in terms of a vote, those come off first.

Then, with the other three — honestly, I’m still gonna take Das Boot here. I think what Petersen accomplishes, shooting so much of the movie inside a submarine, is really astounding. I think he deserved this.

I can’t be upset with Attenborough having won, but I don’t think I’d vote for him. His film is shot on an epic scale, which means wife shots, big sets, lots of people. It looks grand. It’s easy to make it look grand. I don’t think he did all that much outside of shoot in the scale to really make me want to vote for him over Petersen. And to be perfectly honest, I’d vote for Spielberg over Attenborough. Because with Spielberg, he made some really classic images in his film that stick with me way more than the ones from Gandhi do. Gandhi is a great film, but the direction of E.T. I feel is overall stronger.

But either way, I think Petersen takes this for me. Every time I see that film, I’m amazed by his direction.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Wolfgang Petersen, Das Boot
  2. Steven Spielberg, E.T the Extra-Terrestrial
  3. Richard Attenborough, Gandhi
  4. Sidney Lumet, The Verdict
  5. Sydney Pollack, Tootsie

Rankings (films):

  1. The Verdict
  2. Tootsie
  3. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
  4. Das Boot
  5. Gandhi

My Vote: Wolfgang Petersen, Das Boot

Recommendations:

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is life essential. How you could make it to college without having seen it is unfathomable.

Das Boot isn’t essential, but you should see it as a film buff. It’s a really famous film, and it’s just a masterwork of direction. One of the great war films, too. Highly, highly recommended. Put it this way — if you’re here, you trust my opinion enough to know that I’ve seen enough movies to at least know what I’m talking about. And if I’m actually voting for something, there’s a reason for it. You may not agree with me, in the end, but if a movie you haven’t heard of or haven’t seen is something I’m voting for on this Quest, it’s probably something you should see. Otherwise, what are you doing reading this site?

Tootsie is an all-time classic and an essential movie for film buffs. It should be essential for everyone, it’s so good.

The Verdict is also an essential movie for film buffs. It’s a great trial movie, a genre that is always interesting, directed by Sidney Lumet and featuring one of the most iconic Paul Newman performances of all time. If you like movies, you need to see it.

Gandhi is a movie I’m calling life essential, because we should all be educated as to who this man was and why he had such an impact on the world and on history. You should see it as a human being. It’s not life essential the way E.T. is — I can understand if you haven’t seen it at age 20. But you should see it, so just get on that. It’ll make you a better person.

The Last Word: You can make a case for all five. Lumet seems slightest to me. Attenborough’s effort seems appropriately epic but doesn’t inspire much passion from me. Pollack’s effort is really solid but also doesn’t feel enough to warrant a vote. Spielberg is close, but every time I want to vote for him, I’m reminded how much I love Petersen’s effort. So, I take Petersen, but you could feel differently and take any one of the other four directors and be totally legitimized in doing so. As long as you can make a case as to why you think their effort is best, I can see voting for just about any one of the five nominees here. A very strong category.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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