Watergate Does Not Bother Me: the 1977 Oscars

When I started this post I thought it was going to be about journalism and Watergate. But it turns out these movies have a lot more to do with anger, resentment, and masculinity–by 1976 (the year the movies came out), this was how political weariness manifested. In all the movies I saw, the city streets are dirty (New York, Philadelphia, and DC). People are disheveled. They feel angry and left out, but don’t know where to direct it.

The 4/5 Best Picture nominees I watched have different approaches to this. Network commodifies it, Taxi Driver takes it to its violent conclusion, All the President’s Men diagnoses it, and Rocky coats it in sugar-plum fairies. I didn’t watch Bound for Glory. Guess which one the Academy chose…

Look, I expect to catch some flack from the Rocky lovers (let’s be real, none of them read this blog), but All the President’s Men, Network, and Taxi Driver are all better movies than Rocky. Maybe they cancelled each other out–I could easily see AtPM and Network appealing to similar audiences and stealing votes from each other. But mostly I think the late 70s were rough and people wanted an inspirational happy movie that didn’t make people think about politics or culture to win.

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But seriously?

As evidenced by the Best Picture nominees, this was not a great year for female acting parts. I don’t think any of these movies would pass the Bechdel test. Carrie did come out that year, and both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie were nominated for their performances (neither won), but I can’t watch a horror movie about a tortured teenage girl. Beatrice Straight won Best Supporting Actress with a record low of 5:40 screen time in Network (see my dissection of that scene below). Lina Wertmüller made history as the first woman nominated for Best Director for Seven Beauties, but she lost to John Avildson for Rocky (Sad fact: Kathryn Bigelow was the 4th woman nominated for Best Director and is the only one to have won it in 2009 for The Hurt Locker).

All the Best Picture nominees this year had very distinct visions/aesthetics. Some are more appealing than others. Let’s move through them alphabetically.

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Makin’ Research Sexy Since 1976

All the President’s Men is the most exciting movie about investigative journalism ever made. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman are amazing as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein investigating the Watergate break-in that led to the resignation of President Nixon and the propensity to add “-gate” to the end of anything resembling a political scandal.

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It’s a movie about truth, and putting the salve over the national pain of Vietnam and Watergate. It’s a perfect Oscar movie: self-congratulatory, celebrating a moment of American history that we can point to and feel good about (the investigation, not the scandal).

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The writing and acting are great, but I think the directing/editing deserves a lot of the praise for the pacing of the movie. I mean, it’s about two reporters making phone calls, interviewing people, typing notes, and talking to their editors. It could have been a real snooze-fest. But Director Alan Pakula & co. made it into a thriller at many moments.

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Ah, life before search engines

Strangely, neither Redford nor Hoffman received nominations for their performances. I mean, they both have Oscars (although Redford’s isn’t for acting) and have definitely received praise for their careers, but I don’t like living in a world where Sylvester Stallone was nominated over these guys. It’s just not right. Jason Robards won Supporting Actor for his role as editor Ben Bradlee (fun fact: John Slattery played Bradlee Jr. in Spotlight), and Jane Alexander was nominated for Supporting Actress for playing Judy Hoback, the bookkeeper for CREEP. Neither one has much screen time, but they’re both good.

I think this was just a year of too many Best Actor performances, so that category was extremely competitive but the others were rather weak. I mean, Ned Beatty (no relation to Warren) was up against Robards and he had only one big scene in Network. 

If the Academy wanted a movie celebrating something, it should have been AtPM. But maybe it came too soon after Watergate (Nixon resigned just 2 years before the movie came out), and people weren’t really feeling better about things.

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Biopic of Woody Guthrie–hard pass

 

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From the producers of “Teen Mom”

Network is a great movie. I just watched it for the first time in 2016, so it takes some imagination to think about what it was like to see it as a rather prescient satire of news and television forty years ago. It predicts a world in which entertainment (measured by the ratings and money it brings) drives the news. Sounds pretty familiar. But Network doesn’t really mourn this, it merely takes it to its humorous and dark conclusion: it commodifies religion, revolution, and violence.

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Those who propel this change are the winners of the film: Ned Beatty sees the world as one global economic market, Faye Dunaway only experiences emotions through beating competitor stations at programming, and the only consequences that matter are decreased ratings.

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William Holden (and in her one scene his wife Beatrice Straight) is the moral center of the movie and we watch with him as the other characters take over his network and destroy his friend. For the first half of the movie Holden resists the pressure from execs like Robert Duvall, N. Beatty, and Dunaway and tries to protect Peter Finch from having his breakdowns on camera. But about halfway through he is [literally] seduced by these forces and he watches the rest unfold like the plot of a familiar book.

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Beatrice Straight, working her face right to an Oscar

Cue his scene with Best Supporting Actress winner Straight. Because his affair is a metaphor for the complicity of networks in this entertainment game, it has extra emotional weight. It’s a great scene. It begins in a familiar way: the cheating husband tells his wife about the affair.

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She has her reaction

Then Straight asks Holden about his mistress (Dunaway, not in the scene). He answers that while he loves Dunaway, he knows she doesn’t and might not be able to love him back. He admits that their story is like one of her scripts–he knows they do not end well.

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And there you have it–Oscar for Straight?

 

Faye Dunaway is the true star, and deservedly won Best Actress. She is a female executive in a world of men, and she is just as heartless as the rest of the network. She’s also the stand-in for the Baby Boomer generation coming in with different sexual mores and ethical lines and replacing the old guard.

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But what I like about this movie and her part is that she isn’t punished for her [lack of] ethics. Indeed, she thrives in the world of the movie.

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As her affair with Holden fizzles out (following the script), he makes one last attempt to appeal to her humanity.

She’s a stunted shell of a person, and they can never work because they are fundamentally irreconcilable. But Holden’s the one who is out of a job and messed up his own marriage.

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He’s pretty great in this, too

Peter Finch won Best Actor for his role as the deranged/prophetic anchorman exploited for ratings. He died of a heart attack two months before the ceremony, and was the first actor awarded a posthumous Oscar. I think his death may have moved a lot of people to reward his performance; he was a little-known actor in Hollywood until Network. His competition in the Best Actor category were Robert DeNiro for Taxi Driver (probably should have won, but he’s been recognized elsewhere), William Holden for Network (a more subtle role, and he was great), Giancarlo Gianni for Seven Beauties (even a female director couldn’t get me to watch that movie), and Sylvester Stallone for Rocky (can we call that acting?).

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Frankly, his part would be a lot funnier if Trump weren’t the Republican nominee

A lot of the things I like about Network probably hurt it with the Academy: it’s a smart satire that not everyone is going to a) understand or b) find funny.

 

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Toxic Masculinity

[I know Rocky comes next alphabetically, but here I want to go in the order in which I watched them, for reasons which will become clear below]. Taxi Driver is terrifying. Robert DeNiro’s character is the poster child for lone wolf terrorism; he lashes out with violence against perceived threats around him. The worst part for me [spoiler alert] is that he survives, and is rewarded for his violence. Until then, the movie sort of condemned DeNiro’s actions by demonstrating how he scared the people around him.

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He embodies rape culture, and spends the movie trying to rescue first Cybil Shepherd and then Jodie Foster from the men around them. In his mind, he is the hero and everyone else is a villain; women are precious commodities without thoughts or desires of their own. When rebuffed, he gets violent.

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the monster’s loose at the end of the movie

That said, the movie is shot beautifully. The whole thing is hazy, and the camera is almost always either on DeNiro’s face or from his POV. The cinematography and directing go a long way towards getting you inside his [eery] mindset. The movie also captures an angry, weary feeling that society was corrupt and helpless–the same urge that has Peter Finch telling everyone to shout and be angry in Network. By making DeNiro’s character a Vietnam vet, it also introduces but doesn’t really explore the segment of society who were disaffected veterans with PTSD, who knew how to handle weapons and were clearly tortured. I’m also troubled by the way the movie has been embraced/utilized after its production–not just John Hinckley Jr.’s attempted assassination of President Reagan, it can easily be read as a celebration of toxic and destructive masculinity.

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Taxi Driver was nominated for 4 Oscars: Lead Actor (DeNiro), Supporting Actress (Jodie Foster), Original Score, and Best Picture. It won none. Honestly I think it should have been up/won for Best Director and Score. I’m torn on whether it should have won any acting awards. DeNiro embodied this role, and ranged from somewhat charming to outright terrifying, often without speaking.

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But he had just won Supporting Actor two years earlier for The Godfather Part II, and he would be nominated 5 more times (winning Lead Actor in 1980 for Raging Bull), so he clearly has received plenty of recognition for his work. Let’s say this: if we’re judging it based on pure performance, DeNiro deserved to win. If I incorporate my enjoyment of the film and the politics of who needs an Oscar, I’d probably have given it to Peter Finch.

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As for Jodie Foster, Christina has told me that there are no good child actors, only good editors. Her performance is small (although not Beatrice Straight small), and I guess the most impressive thing is that they found a 12 year old who could play a sex worker and scream during a murder scene? She brought some levity to the movie, but I was constantly in fear that I would have to watch sexual violence against her (there was none on camera). She had more to work with in terms of the part, but I don’t think it was Oscar-worthy. Like I said before, it was a weird year for female performances.

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As for Best Picture, Taxi Driver was a tough movie to watch (although easier for me to sit through than Rocky), which probably hurt its chances. I’m fine with it not winning Best Picture, except that it lost to Rocky.

 

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How the fuck did this win Best Picture?

I’m seriously asking. Of the four nominees I’ve seen, Rocky has the worst writing and acting by far. Its directing isn’t interesting or unique–did they invent the montage? That’s the only reason I could think of for Avildsen to win Best Director. Why wasn’t Scorsese nominated?!? Did we watch the same movies? If they wanted an uplifting story with a less jarring style to win Best Picture, then go with All the President’s Men. 

Part of what I hated about Rocky is the constant feeling that it was catering to the lowest common denominator of our society. This is a movie for people who don’t think about what they’re watching, because if they do they will quickly grow to hate the protagonist. Rocky is a moron, he admits it himself. But more importantly, he’s also selfish and patriarchal and probably a rapist. Yet he gets celebrated for it.

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Watching it on the heels of Taxi Driver, I noticed a lot of similarities between Rocky and Travis Bickle. Like Bickle, Rocky tries to save the women around him even when they do not want to be saved. Especially Adrian/Talia Shire. Talia Shire’s brother kicks her out of the house to make her go out with Rocky, throwing away a perfectly good Thanksgiving turkey that she’d been cooking all day. Then Rocky practically forces her to come into his apartment; she repeatedly says that she is uncomfortable, that she doesn’t know him well enough to be in his apartment, that she wants to go. He barricades the door, removes her hat and glasses, and kisses her. Don’t worry, he says, you don’t have to kiss me back if you don’t want. This is textbook definition rape culture.

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Whereas DeNiro’s Bickle gets called out for this behavior in Taxi Driver, Stallone’s Rocky gets rewarded for it. Because in the world of Rocky, Adrian is just a shy girl who really likes Rocky even when she avoids eye contact with him and says no to spending time with him. She’s just embarrassed, that’s why she’s saying no. She really wants it.

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Stockholm Syndrome

When they are a couple, I have no idea what she gets out of the relationship. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t ask her questions or listen to her answers. She exists purely to give comfort and support to the men around her. I was horrified for her. Since the love story was the only thing I could see to really pull me through the movie, I was unimpressed. I’ve lost all faith in America that this won anything other than Best Song (which it did not win). Stallone was nominated for Lead Actor, Talia Shire for Lead Actress (in what was really a supporting role), and Burgess Meredith and Burt Young were both up for Supporting Actor. None of them won, and none of them deserved to. Watch Stallone’s face when Peter Finch wins Lead Actor:

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Aw, he thought he was going to win

So if I re-adjudicated the 1977 Oscars I only really think I would change Best Director to Scorsese and Best Picture to Network. Do better next time, guys.

 

 

6 thoughts on “Watergate Does Not Bother Me: the 1977 Oscars

  1. Amazing post, as always. I’ve never seen Taxi Driver (or Network, or Rocky…) but I will never forget watching an interview with Cybill Shepherd where she, quite defiantly and proudly, noted that when Hinkley shot Reagan in 81′, he may have been doing it for Jodie Foster, but in the film it was HER character that was the assassination inspiration. Cybill Shepherd is a fucking nutter.

    Also, Robert Redford in AtPM–swoon.

    Like

  2. This was a wonderful post; such a great mix of informative and incisive!

    I honestly had so many responses and comments as I read it. Apologies for my hella long comment, but also, #noregrets. Here are my favorite things you wrote (and my comments):

    #1 “When I started this post I thought it was going to be about journalism and Watergate. But it turns out these movies have a lot more to do with anger, resentment, and masculinity–by 1976 (the year the movies came out), this was how political weariness manifested. In all the movies I saw, the city streets are dirty (New York, Philadelphia, and DC). People are disheveled. They feel angry and left out, but don’t know where to direct it. The 4/5 Best Picture nominees I watched have different approaches to this. Network commodifies it, Taxi Driver takes it to its violent conclusion, All the President’s Men diagnoses it, and Rocky coats it in sugar-plum fairies.”
    –> This was such a great gendered observation. It reminds me a bit of your insights re: The Deer Hunter (https://strongfemalefriendship.com/tag/the-deer-hunter/).

    #2 “The writing and acting are great, but I think the directing/editing deserves a lot of the praise for the pacing of the movie. I mean, it’s about two reporters making phone calls, interviewing people, typing notes, and talking to their editors. It could have been a real snooze-fest. But Director Alan Pakula & co. made it into a thriller at many moments.”
    –> Great point. Directing/editing *and* casting.

    #3 “It’s a perfect Oscar movie: self-congratulatory, celebrating a moment of American history that we can point to and feel good about (the investigation, not the scandal).”
    –> Yes. The perfect Oscar movie seems to be simultaneously pseudo-critical AND self-congratulatory! (I’m thinking “Spotlight,” “The Big Short,” “Selma,” “Argo” to name a few recent ones.) That way, it both appeals to a liberal ethos willing to be self-critical and also perpetuates the idea of American exceptionalism.

    #4 “But what I like about this movie and her part is that she isn’t punished for her [lack of] ethics. Indeed, she thrives in the world of the movie… She’s a stunted shell of a person, and they can never work because they are fundamentally irreconcilable. But Holden’s the one who is out of a job and messed up his own marriage.”
    –> This is an interesting point. I wonder how this movie/script would have played out if it was made now, or recently. Like, would her character ultimately evolve somewhat to make her more likable? Or end with a love interest still possible? Or be similar, in the vein of anti-heroines and flawed female characters? Or, if this story were a television show or mini-series, which I feel like is much more inclined to have unlikable and fascinating women front and center, how might that alter her character’s story arc?

    #5 “As for Jodie Foster, Christina has told me that there are no good child actors, only good editors.”
    –> This line just made me laugh, because it’s such a Christina-thing to say in its bold opinion and insight that makes me go “huh, I never thought about it like that, but totally!” Plus, I just love that you were able to cite her.

    #6 “How the fuck did this win Best Picture? I’m seriously asking. Of the four nominees I’ve seen, Rocky has the worst writing and acting by far. Its directing isn’t interesting or unique–did they invent the montage? That’s the only reason I could think of for Avildsen to win Best Director.”
    –> Did they invent the montage? is the funniest cinema question ever.

    #7 “Watching it on the heels of Taxi Driver, I noticed a lot of similarities between Rocky and Travis Bickle… Whereas DeNiro’s Bickle gets called out for this behavior in Taxi Driver, Stallone’s Rocky gets rewarded for it.”
    –> Again, I love it when you focus on male behavior, aggression, etc. This feels like an amazing comparison to me, and one of those “aha” moments that can happen when you watch/read/experience/consider seemingly different stories in context.

    Love it all.
    Love you.
    PS – This comment was basically my blog post for the week.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Such a good point about American exceptionalism and Oscar movies–I bet we could trace that…

      And a note on Dunaway’s Network character: the director Sidney Lumet said to her, “I know the first thing you’re going to ask me: where’s her vulnerability? Don’t ask it. She has none. If you try to sneak it in, I’ll get rid of it in the editing room, so it’ll be a wasted effort.” But I do wonder at the think pieces such a role would inspire today.

      Like

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