Friday, October 21, 2016

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1974

The Contenders:

Roman Polanski: Chinatown
Francois Truffaut: Day for Night
Francis Ford Coppola: The Godfather Part II (winner)
Bob Fosse: Lenny
John Cassavetes: A Woman Under the Influence

What’s Missing

The list of contenders for Best Director for 1974 is a strong one, but there are a few people who might bear some mention here. Coppola had a hell of a good year, and while two nominations for director would probably be pushing it, he may have well deserved some recognition for The Conversation. Speaking of good years, Mel Brooks made both Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein in 1974. The “not in English” contingent was almost certainly taken up with Truffaut’s nomination, but what about Andrei Tarkovsky for The Mirror? Or Rainer Werner Fassbinder for Ali: Fear Eats the Soul? Just for fun, let’s throw in Tobe Hooper for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Why not, right?

Weeding through the Nominees

5. John Cassavetes was a fine director, but for me, A Woman Under the Influence rides on two things—a very smart (and unnominated) screenplay and a truly monster performance from Gena Rowlands. I don’t want to downplay Cassavetes here, because as the director, he got that performance from Rowlands and he wrote the screenplay. But I need to keep the director separate from everything else he did here, and I like his work elsewhere here more. In a list like this one, fifth place is no shame, even if putting him in fifth feels a little like a crime.

4. The best thing about Bob Fosse as a director is that he had absolutely no fear. This was a man who would go to dark places to see what he could find and dredge up whatever he could find to expose it to the sunlight. Lenny is exactly that sort of a film and Fosse dives into the good and the bad of Lenny Bruce’s life with a sort of clarity and focus that is truly impressive. The problem is that it might actually be too much. It’s perhaps overdramatized, and it might have had to be to really get to the meat of the story. I like Fosse’s work in general and he was certainly the best in other years. Just not this year.

3. My issue with Francois Truffaut is entirely personal. I always want to like Truffaut more than I actually like his films. I like Day for Night quite a bit, but I think a lot of what I like about it is Truffaut’s appearance. He’s just so damn likeable. I like a lot of what happens here, but as with Cassavetes above, I just like the other directorial performances from this year more. A little of the magic of the film is killed for me when so much of the behind the scenes is shown. That’s the point of the film, of course, but I can’t help but think that there are things here that I probably shouldn’t be privy to. Still, third place in a year this good isn’t bad.

2. I’m torn in a year like this one, and it was a struggle not to put a lot of these directors as potentially good winners. The truth is that I could almost certainly make a case for all of them. That’s especially true with Roman Polanski and Chinatown. The truth is that it might actually be the single best directorial performance in a year that had a lot of them, including a number that weren’t nominated. I love just about everything there is about Chinatown, and a great deal of what I love is how the story is told and just how carefully everything is maintained. It’s great work. It just can’t compete with one of the great directorial years in movie history.

My Choice

1. Coppola was the right choice. The Godfather Part II is rightfully considered one of the most fundamentally important films in American film history. It’s an incredibly complex film and it all holds together perfectly. That in and of itself might be good enough to get him the trophy he ended up winning. Coupled with the fact that he also directed The Conversation this year—a film far better than remembered—and you’ve got a case that it would be difficult to ignore. He won the trophy, and I’m not going to be the one who takes it away from him. Oscar did right.

Final Analysis


  1. It is an extremely strong year and I'd agree all the way up to the runner up with the placements. When I think about Woman Under the Influence pretty much all I think about is Gena Rowlands, despite Peter Falk's terrific contribution and Cassavetes skill. Same with Lenny and Hoffman, Valerie Perrine and Jan Miner.

    I like Day for Night and I'm sure the direction of a film about making a film happen is a challenge but I was never overawed by that particular piece of the movie.

    The choice between GFII & Chinatown is a tough one but of the many fine pictures Polanski has turned out I think Chinatown is his peak when all the elements came together the most fully. Godfather has a great deal of that too so I guess it comes down to a choice of which film I think the most highly of and that's Chinatown. It's adored by so many but I personally hated The Conversation, if the nomination had been for that it would have been a much easier choice.

    As to what's missing, I don't know if I'd even say it was a miss since the field is so strong (though if something had to go it would be WUTI) but worthy of consideration is Joseph Sargent's direction of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three which turns what could have been just another adventure film into a taut, clever suspenser. I also like how Sidney Lumet kept the setbound Murder on the Orient Express lively and engaging despite the limitations demanded by the setup-of course when you have that bench of actors to work with it's not as tough as it would otherwise be.

    1. I came very close to mentioning The Taking of Pelham One Two Three at the top. It's been too long since I've seen it, though.

      See, and I was in that same quandary regarding the top two spots. I think Chinatown might be a better-directed film, but I don't know that anyone has had as good a year as Coppola, except perhaps for Victor Fleming in 1939. I do like The Conversation and I think there are a lot of aspects of both of Coppola's films that show a pretty deft hand.

  2. I love it when your Friday Oscar category is one where I've seen all the movies!

    And it's really hard to disagree with the Academy here. Some of the other films mentioned are favorites of mine that I've seen over and over - Chinatown, Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles - and I would pick differently if the category was Best Picture.

    But the Best Director is clearly Coppola.

    1. I think so, although I wouldn't have been at all upset if Polanski had walked away with it. Chinatown is really him hitting on all cylinders.

  3. After missing the Award for the Best Picture Winner two years before, it seemed inevitable that the Academy would make good. This was the class of the field. I love Chinatown, but the script is what makes that movie work so well and it was rewarded for that. GFII fired on all cylinders, and managed to exceed the original on a number of levels. That set decoration for Chinatown was also pretty amazing. DWP or Little Italy at the end of WWI? How can you pick?

    1. I buy that. There are rare times when Oscar awards a make-up when the recipient actually earns it.

      There's a lot to love with Chinatown. It would've been my pick for Best Picture by a slim margin.

  4. I can't imagine a stronger set of Best Director nominees for any year. Godfather II may be my favorite movie of all-time (That distinction changes from time to time). I would probably put Fosse second, Polanski third, Cassavetes fourth and Truffaut fifth. That's nitpicking, I'm a fan of all these films, but you can't deny what Coppola did with Godfather II. I like that you mentioned Mel Brooks..that was quite a twofer. I do confess to still have an affection for The Towering Inferno, but not for Best Director, especially with this field. Another one I might throw in is Sam Peckinpah for Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia! I realize this is a movie some people hate and some people love...I'm of the latter category. But still wouldn't have place for Sam in this category even so! I think 1974 was a real formative movie year for me and why I like the kind of movies I do.

    1. Yeah, we're going to disagree on Alfredo Garcia, which I didn't love. I won't say I hated it, but it's not a film I plan on watching again any time soon.

      It is a pretty great year for film.

    2. Count me as one of those what loves [b]Alfredo Garcia[/b]. I only saw it once but I frequently think of that scene where Warren Oates is driving down the highway and talking to that bloody bag that holds Alfredo Garcia's head.

      I wouldn't quite be willing to suggest it as a contender among the movies we've bandied about so far, but that's no disgrace. It's still a great movie.

    3. Fair enough. I realize that I'm clearly in the minority on that one.

  5. I cannot fault your ranking.
    The one movie I am missing here I Young Frankenstein. To my mind Brook's best and for once largely due to direction.

    1. I agree. It would never get a nomination, but in retrospect, this was a very good year for Brooks.