Friday, February 7, 2014

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1973

The Contenders:
George Lucas: American Graffiti
Ingmar Bergman: Cries and Whispers
William Friedkin: The Exorcist
Bernardo Bertolucci: Last Tango in Paris
George Roy Hill: The Sting (winner)

What’s Missing

This is a case where I’d love to swap out a single film for one that wasn’t nominated. I genuinely like four of the films nominated and think the directors in question did excellent work. There are some notable films and deserving directors who weren’t nominated, of course, and while a few of these never had a real chance, in a perfect world they would have. First of these is Franklin J. Schaffner for Papillon, which managed a nomination only for music and should have had more representation at the Oscars. Federico Fellini, not one of my favorites, nonetheless could’ve easily gotten some love for Amarcord. I could also argue nominating Sidney Lumet for Serpico. Future winners Clint Eastwood (High Plains Drifter) and Woody Allen (Sleeper) weren’t being taken seriously enough at this point. Finally, I know it would never happen, but I’d have loved to have seen a nomination for Robin Hardy for The Wicker Man. (EDIT: Marie Dressler in the comments below mentions Francois Truffaut's Day for Night, which is a film I very much like. I missed that going through a list of 1973 films and should have mentioned it here without having to be reminded of it.)

Weeding through the Nominees

5: First off, screw Bertolucci and Last Tango in Paris. I freely admit that I hated this film with a passion and that certainly clouds my judgment, but I don’t understand the nomination here beyond the fact that this was a film that got a lot of press and was probably edgy in 1973. As far as I’m concerned, the main thing that Bertolucci did right here was not actually show us Brando’s pucker, and while he deserves our thanks for this, I’m not sure he deserved a nomination for Best Director.

My Choices

4: Now is when things get difficult, and it’s one of the reasons I’m comfortable with not being a member of the Academy. I’d be happy with any of the other four winning. Of the four remaining, George Lucas and American Graffiti is probably the least ambitious, which is the only reason it’s going here. It’s a beautifully directed film with multiple converging stories, but it never gets confusing or difficult. Lucas coaxed some great performances out of his young cast, and whatever the love-hate relationship he has with the Star Wars fanboys today, he did an excellent job here.

3: The Sting is a film without any serious flaws but one—the story is a giant con game that doesn’t amount to much. That’s not George Roy Hill’s fault. In terms of the direction, I can’t find anything I’d have changed much. Hill was helped by having two leading men who had great on-screen chemistry, but The Sting managed to enhance that chemistry. It’s also a complicated story that Hill unfolds at a perfect pace and with tremendously good work behind the camera. It’s great all the way through.

2: It seems strange to me not to put Ingmar Bergman first on the list, especially considering that he is one of the world’s greatest directors and Cries and Whispers is arguably his greatest film. I guess the only reason I didn’t put this in the top position is that I’m not sure I fully understand everything he was trying to say here. This is an incredibly dense film that takes multiple viewings (at least for me) to fully mine, and I’m not yet all the way there with it. After a couple more viewings, it might well bump to the top position. It’s probably greater than I understand.

1: This leaves us with William Friedkin and The Exorcist, which is where I think I ultimately would have placed my vote. If for no other reason, Friedkin deserved a nomination just for bringing this to the screen and scaring the wet blueberries out of virtually everyone. But it’s more than that--The Exorcist taps into real visceral places in the human psyche. There’s not a single wasted shot, and the shots we get are designed not only to tell the story but to make the entire experience as terrifying as possible.

Final Analysis


  1. I would have gone for Bergman. I HATED the Exorcist but I don't blame Friedkin, I blame the story line. Gee, two foreign film directors nominated in one year and Fellini definitely should have got a nod as well!

    1973 was a fantastic year for film. I would have given Terrence Malik a shout out for Badlands and maybe to Bogdonavich for Paper Moon. Day for Night is good Truffaut but probably not the equal of the two foreign films that were actually nominated. I like Last Tango more than you but for Brando's performance not necessarily the direction.

    1. I completely missed Day for Night, which is a film I love and I should've mentioned. Good catch on that one. I'd nominate Badlands for cinematography, but I'm not sure I would for director. Paper Moon is one I don't know.

      I'm totally cool with you choosing Bergman, by the way. This one was really difficult, and I could argue any of the top for winning.

  2. I've never really been able to truly separate the director from the film. To me, if the film is good then the director did a good job; if the film is bad the director did a bad job. I never understand those occasions where a Best Picture nominee does not also get a Best Director nominee.

    I mention this because I would just end up going with the best one of those films for picking the director. I wasn't bothered by Last Tango; I was simply bored by it. Similarly, I was bored by The Exorcist. I'm not a believer so demonic possession isn't something that I'm ever worried about happened to me or someone I know. The Sting is an okay movie, but I've never really felt it's Best Picture material. Cries and Whispers is one of the Bergman films I liked, but it's also not one I would personally pick as a Best PIcture. By process of elimination that leaves American Graffiti. I don't disagree with your description of the film as never confusing or difficult, but I would actually consider that a positive, considering how many different people and storylines there were in it. I honestly don't really see American Graffiti as Best Picture worthy, either.

    Looking outside those five A Touch of Class was the Best Picture nominee that didn't get a Best Director nom. It's a fun movie and funny in places, but yet another "not Best Picture worthy" film. Looking further afield I just went through a list of 1973 films. I didn't count, but I've probably seen at least 20 of them and not one jumped out at me as an "oh, you've got to see that!" kind of movie. Day for Night might be the highest rated one for me, but that's still only a four star movie. Even as stingy as I am I still usually have 1 or 2 movies each year I'd give 5 stars to, but I guess 1973 isn't one of them.

    1. I tend to look at the difference between Picture and Director as the difference between the story being told and the way in which it is told. The story exists as its own thing, but the director (and again, this is my view) is the one who shapes the story and presents it to us. I look at something like Life of Pi as an example of a dull story beautifully told. I'd have never nominated it for Best Picture, but I understand the nomination of Ang Lee for Best Director.

      The Exorcist didn't particularly scare me, either, which is exactly what I said about it in my review of it. In fact, your quote about lack of belief in demonic possession is almost exactly what I wrote. I don't believe in the supernatural, so supernatural films have a long way to go to scare me outside of the context of the films themselves. I can be scared in the moment, but when the movie is done and I return to reality, well, I'm back in reality.

      That said, I like the way the story was told. I like what Friedkin did with that film from start to finish and I like the way he presented information throughout. Again, though, I'd have been happy with a lot of these winning.

      But yeah, 1973 is kind of a down year between Godfathers, evidently.

  3. I agree with your – sort of – collective conclusion that 1973 was a great year for the movies, but had no obvious oscar winner. Last Tango in Paris is definitely overrated. The Exorcist, The Sting, and American Graffiti are all solid but not extraordinary enough. Cries and whispers is heavy but not Bergman's best in my book. Neither Badlands, Paper Moon, Amarcord, High plains drifter nor Sleeper are strong enough, and Wicker Man only works partially. Which leaves me with the fine little gem Day for night. But isn't it too unspecatacular?

    Bah! I can't decide! Let's put the chainsaw to the statuette, and give everyone mentioned a slice – except for Last Tango and Wicker Man that is!

  4. I would have gone with Friedkin as well in a very tough field. But I would take away his previous French Connection Oscar and give it to Bogdanavich for The Last Picture Show...If it were up to me.

  5. @Nicolas--I do like Day for Night but it might be too self-referential even for the Academy. I'll disagree and say that for its time, The Exorcist was pretty damn extraordinary. Maybe not today, but back then, it was something special.

    @Chris--I haven't gotten to 1971 yet, but I suspect I may agree.

  6. The miss for me here is Spirit of the Beehive. The direction here is extraordinary. Fellini also deserves some love for Amarcord, in my opinion his best movie.

    1. You and I agree on Amarcord. I'd have loved to see Schaffner here for Papillon, but I'm still going with Friedkin.