Highs and Lows: the 1979 Oscars

As we’ve seen, some Oscar years are very serious. Others are not. This one is a grab bag. We have two serious films about Vietnam, The Deer Hunter and Coming Home, a “prison drama” in Midnight Express, a PG romp in Heaven Can Wait, and a comedic examination of single womanhood in An Unmarried Woman. It’s a strange combo.


I imagine most of the Oscar season revolved around the different messages/politics of the Vietnam films. Many have written extensively on the two films (for a side-by-side comparison of the inception, filming, and reception of the two, see Peter Buskin’s Vanity Fair piece).

Granted, not her best idea

Since I’ve already written my thoughts about Coming Home and The Deer Hunter on this blog, I’ll just focus on select performances within them, and I’ll get into my thoughts on An Unmarried Woman. I didn’t watch Midnight Express because no.


Coming Home nabbed two of the top acting awards: Best Actor for Jon Voight and Actress for Jane Fonda. Voight gets bonus points because he played a paraplegic, but he also brings so much emotion to his character.

Yup, that’s his urine on the floor

It’s surprising they rewarded Fonda’s political turn so soon after her Hanoi Jane moment, but she totally deserved it. Really, the entire movie hinges on Voight and Fonda as sympathetic characters with believable character arcs. They both nailed it.



Christopher Walken won the only acting Oscar for The Deer Hunter, and he is good (although I think DeNiro is the best of them).


Walken doesn’t overact, even with the overly dramatic Russian Roulette conclusion.

“Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” was his jam, pre-war

He beat out Bruce Dern’s work in Coming Home, which makes me sad. Dern is excellent at portraying the anger simmering under the surface, exploding up in tense moments. And in hindsight, Walken has made insane choices ever since while Dern has delivered consistently amazing performances over the last decades. So, I kind of wish that Dern had won.



Maggie Smith won Best Supporting Actress for California Suite, which I have never seen. God, watching her win the award was a beautiful time capsule. Someone is blocking her face so we don’t get to see it when she wins, and presenter George Burns is creepy and sexist to his co-presenter, a young Brooke Shields. Maybe things haven’t changed that much.

From my research, she appears to wear this in every scene

Meryl Streep and Penelope Milford were nominated for The Deer Hunter and Coming Home respectively, and I’m ok with their losses. Streep has received plenty of recognition (although at the time she was a newbie), and Milford’s performance was good-not-great.



All in all, Coming Home is a better movie. It’s more focused and its politics are clearer and more positive. But The Deer Hunter took more risks. The Academy often rewards that.

I’m still obsessed with this 45-minute long wedding



Today, An Unmarried Woman would be a TV show. The premise is a woman, Jill Clayburgh, figuring out life and relationships after her husband of 16 years leaves her. It sprawls and has an ambiguous ending (she’s walking down the streets of NYC carrying a large modern art piece her lover just gifted her). They just don’t make movies like this anymore, but it definitely inspired shows like Sex and the City and Girls, and films such as The First Wives’ Club and Something’s Gotta Give. How had I never heard of it before?

Showing off her dancing skills, inspiring Frances Ha…

While the setup is not inventive, I like that the movie subverts many of the tropes we (at least today) associate with the just-dumped-reinventing-life story.

  1. We see her as a rather independent woman even within her marriage. She is one in a classic group of 4 women (one played by a young Emily Gilmore!) who talk about men, happiness, depression, and culture. They help her through the divorce but they also help her during her marriage.
Sassy Kelly Bishop on the left is the Samantha of this quartet


2. Her marriage seems like a pretty good partnership: they jog together, have lots of sex, but have outside friendships and activities. There weren’t lots of red flags they obnoxiously foreshadowed.



3. When he confesses that he is in love with another woman, he’s the one sobbing on a city street. She just looks at him coldly and asks, “Is she a good lay?” Sure, she breaks down and rages later, but not at first.

Such a great “what the fuck?” face

Of course it does fall into the familiar pattern: she gets a therapist, relies a little heavily on her daughter, discovers casual sex, and gets a sexy British painter boyfriend. It’s still thoroughly enjoyable, and now it’s on Netflix! There was no way this was going to win Best Picture, but in a different year (one without Fonda) Clayburgh might have won Best Actress. After all, Diane Keaton won for Annie Hall the year before.


I was going to watch Heaven Can Wait, but I watched the trailer and decided I just couldn’t.

Warren Beatty as a football player who comes back to life as a rich man? No thanks.

In sum, the Vietnam Oscars split the difference between liberal politics and edgy filmmaking. Jane Fonda was in full crusader mode, and chose to sign a chunk of her acceptance speech in ASL to raise awareness for disabled people. While it didn’t win Best Picture, I’m sure she can take comfort in how well the politics of Coming Home have aged, especially compared to The Deer Hunter.

She’s a goddamn national treasure

Would The Deer Hunter still be well-known if it hadn’t won Best Picture? Or is it just that all movies glorifying toxic masculinity seem to endure?

One thought on “Highs and Lows: the 1979 Oscars

  1. Another lovely Oscars round-up, my dear! I liked the Maggie Smith clip with young Brooke Shields (which also taught me something about “palimony”) and I’ve added both California Suite and An Unmarried Woman to my to-be-watched lists! Will report back when I’ve watched one!

    Oh! And the VF article link is much appreciated. I love that Jane Fonda was inspired by Ron Kovic, the author of Born on the Fourth of July, saying something like “I may have lost my body, but I’ve gained my mind.” (And that Kovic said his injuries “really helped [his] sex life” because he learned how to use his mouth and hands to pleasure a woman.) And, man, the insider-how-did-this-get-made details were also fabulous to read.

    Liked by 1 person

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