Friday, June 19, 2015

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1981

The Contenders:

Louis Malle: Atlantic City
Hugh Hudson: Chariots of Fire
Mark Rydell: On Golden Pond
Steven Spielberg: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Warren Beatty: Reds (winner)

What’s Missing

This feels like déjà vu. I’ve looked at Best Picture from 1981 and it’s the exact five movies I’m looking at here. That means I’ll probably be mentioning the same movies that were missed. Das Boot heads the list, but I’ll give the Academy a pass on Wolfgang Petersen’s masterpiece because he was nominated the next year. Michael Mann’s Thief deserves more love, as does Lawrence Kasdan’s work in Body Heat. I’d also stump for John Landis’s work in An American Werewolf in London. Considering the overwhelming success of the latest Mad Max movie, I also think the Academy lacked foresight in overlooking George Miller and The Road Warrior.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. Chariots of Fire is pretty. I won’t take that away from what I think is ultimately a staggeringly boring film. My issue with it here is that I don’t really know what Hugh Hudson did other than set his camera down and film guys running. The best parts of Chariots of Fire come from the cinematography and the iconic soundtrack, not the storytelling abilities of Hudson. I get why the film is respected, and I even understand (and disagree completely) with why it ultimately won Best Picture. It doesn’t deserve to be up for this award, though.

4. I have pretty much the same complaint with On Golden Pond. I liked this movie more than I thought I would, but everything I like comes from the story and the wonderfully crotchety performance of Henry Fonda. Again, it’s a pretty film, but I’m not really convinced that Mark Rydell did much more than put his cameras where he wanted them and then stay out of the way of a veteran, talented cast. That’s not deserving of a nomination.

3: Atlantic City has atmosphere. It also has a creepy May-December romance, but that’s not really the fault of Louis Malle, so I won’t hold that against him. There are some beautiful, memorable shots in this film at the very least, and that puts it above the two films already mentioned, at least in my opinion (which is the only one that counts when I write these up). I don’t love this movie, but I can at least respect how Malle told the story.

2: I though Reds was overlong, but Warren Beatty deserves some credit for keeping its ponderous bulk from crashing and burning completely. Beatty was a sophomore director with this, and his previous directing work (Heaven Can Wait) was done with the assistance of Buck Henry. It’s impressive that this film was substantially better than a long, incoherent mess. For all its flaws, the fact that it holds together is noteworthy. It’s just not the best directorial performance of 1981.

My Choice

1: Spielberg has won two competitive directing Oscars. I’ll certainly talk about the merits of those at some point. There are others I think he should have won. One of these is Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s a reason this film is still watched, loved, and enjoyed. There’s a reason that audiences of people who weren’t born when this was released love Indiana Jones. Great in its own right, Spielberg manages to pay homage to the thrillers of his youth and create so many memorable moments that the Academy did him a massive disservice by passing over him here.

Final Analysis


  1. Raiders of the Lost Ark is so awesome that it ought to win in almost any year. On a personal top 10 it would figure high and it has never left that place in 30 years. I love it as much today as I did back then.
    Of course the Academy did not had the hindsight of us today, but how could they not be impressed with this movie?
    Good call, Steve.

    1. It's in my top-5 all time, and still one of the best experiences I ever had in a movie theater.

    2. Totally agree with you on this one. I have seen all five of these movies and Spielberg should have won easily. He probably didn't win because Raiders is an action movie. Whatever the reason, Spielberg's achievement easily stands out among these films.

    3. Oscar doesn't like action movies for whatever reason. It's a damn shame, because this really is one of the great movies ever made.

  2. Oscar also didn't like Spielberg himself. A separate wing of the Academy gave him the Thalberg award in the late 80s as a makeup for the fact that a sizable chunk of the voting block just didn't want to see him win. It took Schindler's List for them to finally cave and give him an Oscar.

    Raiders is an insanely entertaining film and one of the few movies I saw in a theater before I was 18.

    1. Raiders of the Lost Ark is, frankly, one of the movies that made me interested in movies. Star Wars and The Thing are a part of that as well, but Raiders might be the biggest influence in that respect.

  3. Replies
    1. Yeah. I had a lot more trouble aligning numbers 5-2 than I did with picking the winner.

  4. Raiders is one of those movies where the direction is, in many ways, absolutely visible on the screen, and yet not heavy-handed or obvious. It's brilliantly, giddily directed and should have won. No question.

    1. I like it when I find a concensus, but I'd have liked it more if the Academy had agreed.

  5. Love you suggested substitutions although I'd pick three other films to replace the ghastly Chariots of Fire, the saguine On Golden Pond and Beatty's admirable but overlong Reds. I would have gone with Peter Weir's expert handling of Gallipoli, Brian DePalma for Blow Out and John Boorman's wonderful imagining of the Arthurian legend in Excalibur.

    Even though I can't honestly say I loved the movie Louis Malle really was able to capture a sense of the essence of the decaying Atlantic City. But it was absurd that there was any other winner then Spielberg. He's made many fine films but Raiders is without question one of his best and probably his most fun and exciting.

    1. I didn't love Gallipoli and Blow Out is a gap in my viewing. Excalibur is a good suggestion, though.

      Malle's direction is what I like most about Atlantic City. But really, is Raiders ever the wrong answer? For anything?