What makes an Oscar winner? I have no idea, really. But I can take a guess by watching each Best Picture winner, regardless of if I’ve already seen it, at random years, and then watching the two nominees with the most Oscar nominations for that year to find out, in my pompous assessment, if the Academy made the right choice. If I’ve already seen the subsequent nominee, I’ll move on to the next most nominated for that year.
The 44th Academy Award Best Picture nominees I watched: The French Connection, The Last Picture Show (8), Fiddler on the Roof (8)
[ bold = winner / italics = losers (nominations) ]
When I watched these: October 22nd – 24th, 2017
The snacks: more chicken taquitos, chips and cheese, and then Mountain Mike’s pizza.
The year: 1971.
Did I skip any of the movies?: No. Among the nominations were A Clockwork Orange, but it only received 4 nods.
So why did the other movies lose?
The Last Picture Show, featuring a sultry Cybil Shepherd, and a whole bunch of other actors, has a nude scene fifteen minutes into the film. Just about everyone else gets naked at some point, whether it’s shown or not. The reason: everyone is bored. It’s a small Texas town with exactly one radio channel that comes in clear, and Hank Williams pervades the air waves. At the start, people are just meandering; the literal village idiot is busy sweeping dust off the dusty main road, and no one has anything in particular to say, because everyone in the town knows each other. But they’re keeping secrets: Racy Jacy is bored with Duane (an EXCELLENT Jeff Bridges performance); the coach is gay, and his wife is lonely; Abilene is having an affair with Jacy’s mom, who is candid with her daughter about her boredom. The film is powerful. We primarily see everything through the lens of Sonny, who we empathize with from the start (“you ALWAYS have the Chevy!”), but he’s no saint either. If the film spent less time offering up Shepherd on a platter and more time letting Sonny be bored, it might have ousted the Best Picture winner. Nonetheless, it’s a fantastic film, but it’s a film I’ll only watch once due to its intentionally discomforting attributes.
Taking a higher road, Fiddler on the Roof iss a powerful treatise on the value of integrity, and the fine line of tradition versus truth and doing what’s right. The dialogue is masterful, and the mononymous Tolov as Tevya is the anchor of the whole film, delivering each line with passion and each song with great earnest. The highlights involve his numbers on becoming rich and the heartfelt “do you love me?” duet with his wife. It’s clear the Jews of the village despise the ruling Tsar and the Russian race at large, and the encounter at the bar almost an hour in finally illustrates the culture clash, which also happens to feature some of the best choreography in the film. You also have Petrik, who represents a deviation from tradition, that creates interesting conflict. The music and dancing make an excellent backdrop for an already touching and powerful film, but some of it felt long-winded. It’s possible that its potency as a stage performance rather than a film diminishes its finer qualities.
So why did The French Connection win?
All three Best Picture nominees I watched had eight overall nominations, so we end up splitting hairs when examining “why” The French Connection is the winner. It comes down to preference, in the end, but the film touches on the popular prejudice and crime themes, and Gene Hackman is an absolute beast. Although the film has a vague plot at the start, it allows the music, acting, and cinematography do most of the talking. The camera work is unparalleled. The quick pace of the film becomes less dizzying with skillful zooms and refocuses throughout. It also features two very unique chase sequences: Popeye (Hackman) and Charnier have a brilliant hokey pokey style chase scene involving a subway train where Popeye is found out as undercover, and then a wildly intense chase whereas Popeye is attempting to keep pace in his car, weaving through busy intersections with zero abandon, with a hijacked subway train overhead. It’s a cruel and violent film, but very human: Hackman’s character is rife with inner conflict, allowing his primal rage for winning to take over his sense of duty and safety.
The movie that should have won: The French Connection
Hackman is even better than Tolov, and no amount of sensuality in Last Picture Show can beat out the intensity of the subway/car chase. Last Picture Show feels like an albeit distorted documentary on small-town life; Fiddler on the Roof feels like a stage performance that happens to be filmed on a set; The French Connection feels like a MOVIE.