Historian Elaine Tyler May has argued that preoccupation with the family–political cries for family values and the like–is usually a response to political changes, rather than demographic ones. Panic about the family is often a conservative response to perceived threats to the American nation. In the U.S., you see focus on the family particularly in the 1950s and 80s.
The movies from 1979 reflect a turning point; a transition from the darker political movies that dominated the 1970s to the smaller, tamer, and more familial movies of the 1980s. I don’t have the film history background to say whether films changed or if the Academy changed in its preferences, but there is a significant difference between the Oscar movies of the 70s and the Oscar movies of the 80s.
The movies honored at the 1980 Academy Awards break down loosely into 2 categories: those focused on political issues and those centered on domestic life. This is not to say that the home or domesticity is devoid of or unaffected by political issues, but rather that these movies focusing on the family are more insular and privileged. For example, Norma Rae needs to keep her job for her family to survive; they are bound up in her labor struggle. Ted Kramer’s material struggle is taking a minor pay cut, which others use as a cudgel to bash his masculinity. The Academy’s ostensible preference for movies focused on the privileged American family can be seen as part of the conservative response to the previous tumultuous decades.
It also coincided with the aging of the Baby Boomers–many were settling down, selling out, and divorcing and these latter films capture that part of their life. Kramer vs. Kramer won the Best Picture Oscar, beating out Apocalypse Now, Norma Rae (both political movies), Breaking Away (domestic), and All That Jazz (musical-category of its own). Of the major awards, only Sally Field’s win for Norma Rae came from a political movie; Kramer vs. Kramer was the highest-grossing film of the year and won the most awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Lead Actor, and Supporting Actress.
The Political Movies:
The Coppolas were not in full force during the ceremony, and I personally think everyone was just done with Vietnam movies a year after the Vietnam ceremonies. Apocalypse Now is more visually interesting and daring than any of the movies up for Best Picture (or for that matter than the Deer Hunter or Coming Home the year before), but the Academy here seems to move away from the sweeping epics. It did well at the box office, but some people probably did not enjoy the descent into madness that is the viewing experience. In terms of aesthetics, Kramer vs. Kramer is the furthest thing from Apocalypse Now.
The movie was a horror to film (memorialized in Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness), and replicated many of the traumas captured in the film–including the imperialism.
Apocalypse Now did show how horrible and senseless the war was, but it didn’t assign blame or probe the causes. It didn’t critique the policy thinking that led to the war. Instead it relied on orientalist stereotypes to make its point: the war was fruitless because the Vietnamese were backwards. Senseless violence by the VietCong needed to be met with equally brutal senseless violence. And time in the jungle makes white men go crazy and lose their humanity.
This all worked towards an critical consensus that historians like Marilyn Young have spent so long arguing against: focus on the war as something that happens to Americans, deflects attention from American culpability and the damage done to the Vietnamese people. You see the destruction, but the people and the land aren’t characters, they’re window dressing.
That said, Apocalypse Now has one of the best movie openings ever. Robert Duvall, the only actor nominated for his performance, shines in his minutes on screen, delivering some of its most iconic lines and moments.
In terms of creative and visual storytelling, Apocalypse Now is heads above the rest. It won Oscars for cinematography and sound, and deservedly so.
It would be a few more years before the Academy was willing to entertain another movie about the Vietnam Wars–The Killing Fields about Cambodia in 1985 and Platoon in 1987.
I’m somewhat ambivalent about whether it should have won Best Picture. It has stood the test of time, but its hollowed-out politics are also deeply troubling, and I kind of like that Coppola wasn’t overly rewarded for “recreating Vietnam.” But it is more important and interesting than Kramer vs. Kramer and it’s better made than the rest of the nominees.
In a move that presaged the assault on worker’s rights in the 70s and 80s, the poster for Norma Rae makes it look like a comedic romp about a woman figuring her life out.
Instead, it is a heartwarming but also depressing examination of the effort to unionize a textile factory in North Carolina in the late 1970s. Based on a true story, it does a good job demonstrating the ways that capital utilizes other tensions like that of race, gender, and religion to keep their workers divided and unorganized.
Sally Field was the only actor nominated for her performance, and it was her first Oscar win. Her performance shows Norma Rae as charming but tough, hesitant but sure. The movie shines because she does. It also won Best Song for “It Goes Like it Goes,” beating out “Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet Movie. Bette Midler’s rendition of “The Rose” was not eligible for Best Song because it was not written for the movie.
Maybe I’d give Best Picture to Norma Rae because it’s that good blend of inspirational and about something that matters on a larger scale.
The China Syndrome
The China Syndrome is about people who discover that a nuclear power plant isn’t adhering to safety precautions and the conspiracy to keep that information hidden. It came out 12 days before the Three Mile Island nuclear incident. Throughout the ceremony, announcers mention how The China Syndrome is the most prophetic and probably most important movie to come out. It didn’t take home any Oscars, but was nominated for 4 including Jack Lemmon for Best Actor and Jane Fonda for Best Actress.
The Domestic Movies:
I couldn’t bring myself to watch Breaking Away. From the trailer, it appears to be about a 20 year old kid in Bloomington, Indiana who wishes he was an Italian professional cyclist. Hard pass. Perhaps it was trying to be an updated vision of what the listless youth are doing à la The Graduate. But fucking your parents’ friend makes for a much more interesting hobby than bicycling.
Kramer vs. Kramer
KvK is a foundational text for the Men’s Rights Movement. A wife’s head gets filled with feminism and she’s ruining their family and his job and their kid and his life and then she tries to take the kid. Dads have rights, too.
KvK is a response to feminism and the sexual revolution–if women are encouraged to break free from patriarchal constraints, what happens?! Will men have to conform to different gender roles, too? Again, this was not necessarily in response to actual changes in the family–there was not an uptick in the numbers of women abandoning their families in the late 70s. But the social and cultural awareness about feminism made many panic about how the “traditional family” would survive. Dustin Hoffman’s courtroom scenes are him ranting about how he shouldn’t have to apologize for being a good father and courts shouldn’t assume women are better mothers because of their sex. They of course do not reach the conclusion that this is all part of patriarchy and that feminism, rather than taking women away from families, is working towards a world less constrained by arbitrary gender expectations.
According to a Vanity Fair piece last year, Dustin Hoffman emotionally terrorized (and in Streep’s case physically assaulted) his fellow actors trying to elicit genuine emotions from them instead of, oh I don’t know, letting them act in their own way. During filming, Hoffman was going through a divorce from his first wife and Streep’s partner John Cazale had just died. They both channeled their personal turmoils into their performances, with or without Hoffman’s prompting. I particularly appreciated the way Streep’s performance is in the silences and her lack of eye contact more than soliloquies and emotional explosions. It was her first Oscar win and second nomination.
Hoffman acts with the dogged intensity he brings to all his roles, but I think he won because he had been nominated for so many previous performances without winning (The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Lenny). He had recently criticized the Oscars for being garish and embarrassing, and when he won he acknowledged his previous critiques and did not apologize for them, which I kind of respect.
Another movie about divorce from the man’s perspective. It doesn’t contain the underlying fear about the future of “the family” that KvK does, but it dramatizes how ill-equipped married people are at being single. This one features Burt Reynolds as the straight man “rascal” in a world of hysterical women who love him. Alan Pakula directed the movie, revealing yet another turn from political subject matter to more domestic fare. Pakula is famous for his “paranoid trilogy,” including Klute and All the President’s Men just a few years earlier. James Brooks wrote the screenplay, and it has some of the DNA of the sitcom male-female dynamic in his other movies (especially Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good As It Gets). Characters have their own quirks–men are kind of assholes and women are kind of crazy. You don’t understand them, you can’t change them. You just roll your eyes and shrug your shoulders and move on.
I maintain that Jill Clayburgh’s “crazy” character was just acting normal–her outbursts of emotion in direct response to his provocations. He speaks to her with a Wes Anderson-like honesty and she’s in a Nora Ephron movie. Clayburgh was nominated for Lead Actress, losing to Sally Fields. I agree with the win, but it is nice that both of Clayburgh’s Oscar nominations are for playing plucky women dating later in life.
Candice Bergen was nominated for Supporting Actress, playing Reynolds’ ex-wife. She gets some of the most memorable moments of the movie, singing the songs with a passible-but-bad quality and whispering “I had a vaginal orgasm” to a lover the morning after. Sample song lyric: “Try to remember…I like everything meat.” [retching sound]
It is quite funny.
Since Trump’s election, Being There has been a consistent source of comparison. Peter Sellers plays a simpleton gardener who repeats what he sees on TV. He falls upward into becoming a key political figure. I saw this movie when I was a child and I have no desire to see it again. I remember Peter Sellers walking on water and Shirley MacLaine masturbating in front of him. That’s about it. I don’t remember Melvyn Douglas’ character at all, yet he won Best Supporting Actor for it. He didn’t even attend the ceremonies. Again, Robert Duvall should have won.
All That Jazz
I’m tepid on musicals to begin with, and after seeing the abysmal Nine, I decided I did not want to watch another musical about putting on a musical, thankyouverymuch.
Whether the Academy knew it or not, their votes were part of a building American consensus to turn away from openly confronting the wrongs they saw in their society and instead to decide that things were good and to move on.
Just remember: in the winter, underneath the bitter snows, lies the seed that with the sun’s love in the spring becomes the rose.