The Best Picture Winners: One Flew Over the Coo Coo’s Nest (1975)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

I always look forward to what Milos Foreman is going to do next, mainly because going in I have a basic idea of what I’m going to get.  He specializes in films about misfits struggling against an immobile system.  You can see this on display in best work, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon, films about oddballs who aren’t always lovable. Foreman was born in Czechoslovakia and had been working in Europe for a dozen years before Coo Coo’s Nest brought him success in America.  He was a new voice in the age of the auteur and fit perfectly into an America that was now comfortably anti-authoritarian.

Based on the satirical 1963 novel by Ken Kesey (which I have read), One Flew Over the Coo Coo’s Nest tells the story of the struggle of Randal P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), an inmate confined to a psychiatric hospital in Oregon to break the institutional grip of the head nurse Mildrid Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who holds a psychological grip over her patients. The film was right for the times, a decade when authority was seen as mechanical and corrupt and the outlaw took on a hero status.

I was a fan of the book when I read it as a teenager, particularly Kesey’s use of language and the irony of the fact that the story is narrated by The Chief, a man who never speaks out loud.  That irony isn’t present in the movie and, for me, it kind of undercuts what the book was about.  The movie hands the story over to McMurphy and perhaps the outsider’s point of view gives us a clearer vantage point.  But I remember passages in the book – particularly the chief’s recollection of being force-fed his medication, which he describes as being like a machine – that stayed with me.  The movie seems much more straight-forward.  That’s not to say that I don’t like the film, in fact I like it very much.  But the book had a hold on me that the movie doesn’t quite reach.


The Best Picture Winners: The Godfather Part II (1974)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

Perhaps in the interest of striking while the iron was hot, just three weeks after the 45th Annual Academy Awards – which saw The Godfather take home the top prize – Paramount Pictures officially gave the green light to a sequel.  This was a daunting task.  Not only was it a tough act to follow but Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo this time didn’t have a novel from which to draw their inspiration.

The Godfather Part II is something of an enigma.  It was the first sequel to ever win Best Picture, which is interesting to note because most of these award winners have not bred viable sequels whether it be Scarlett, The Miniver Story, They Call Me MISTER Tibbs, The Last Days of Patton, The French Connection II, The Evening Star, Hannibal or the Rocky sequels.  There are some acts that you just can’t follow.

Good sequels always expand on their predecessor and this film does a good job.  It expands the saga of the Corleone Family from the smaller confines of their New York mobster world to a larger expanse as Michael, now the Godfather himself, tries to keep his empire together while rooting out the traitor in his own family.  Parallel to that, the story rewinds the clock to see how young Vito (Robert de Niro, who won Supporting Actor) comes to America as a small boy and begins to slowly builds his mafia empire.

The result, for most movie fans, has been lauded as the greatest sequel ever made.  I get their passion, especially in the structure of having the stories run parallel so that we see the journey of how Vito damns the destiny of his son.  It is a good structure, but it is not one that I am very fond of.  The story moves back and forth and often cuts back to Vito just as Michael’s story is gaining a head of steam thereby killing the film’s forward momentum.

One of the reasons that I am so passionate about the original Godfather was that it was always, first and foremost, about the family bond.  It was always about how the Corleone family operated as a unit and how their differing personalities often got in the way of doing the right thing.  We liked that family even though they were criminals.  Part II on the other hand is kind of all over the place.  I’ve seen the film several times and, truth be told, I always get lost in the sheer volume of characters, most of which I don’t really care about.

And then there’s Fredo.  The story of the corruption of Michael’s soul is one thing, but having seen how the family unit works in the first film, I am dismayed by the ending here.  I’ve seen the film at least 20 times in my life and the murder of Fredo never rings true to me.  It always feels like a gimmick rather than a natural progression of the story.

That doesn’t mean that I hate this movie, it just means that it comes down to what I am passionate about.  The first film is my favorite American film so a sequel, for me, can only be a step down.  Yet, it’s a slight step down.  This is still a very good movie, but its following a movie that I have eternally in my heart.


The Best Picture Winners: The Sting (1973)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.



The Best Picture Winners: The Godfather (1972)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

It is nearly impossible for me to criticize anything regarding The Godfather.  That’s ironic given that criticism is right there in my job title.  But when it comes to giving this film any kind of critical analysis, I can only be positive.  Not only is it the only Best Picture winner of the 1970s that I agree with, but it remains my all-time favorite American film.

The Godfather was a game-changer, rotating perspective on one of the oldest and most reliable genres that the medium had produced.  Instead of cops chasing criminals, the story – based on an over-stuffed pop novel by Mario Puzo – takes us inside the closed world of the mob, a world with its own set of rules, it’s own laws, it’s own legions – families who operate like nations.  They make deals, they make treaties, they go to war with one another.  The only crime is disloyalty, and the wages of sin is death.

We are inside this world and never step outside of it.  The only characters of any relevance are connected with the mob. The heroes are the Corleones, a powerful New York family that has thrived on an olive oil business but also from money made from prostitution, bootlegging, extortion – all of which Vito, the family patriarch, calls harmless vices. We meet his extended family and several other key players in the famous wedding sequence which introduces us to at least two dozen characters and their connection with the Corleones. When this scene is over, we have been introduced to almost all of the major players who will be significant later. This way, all the needless introductions are out of the way and the story can flow more smoothly.

The larger story deals with the tides of change that are brought on by the aftermath of The Second World War.  Vito, the patriarch, believes that the families can thrive on business interests, like gambling and prostitution, that he sees as harmless vices.  But the changing times are bringing a new generation of mobsters who believe that the drug trade is the wave of the future.  The old man warns against this – drugs is a dirty business.

The Godfather is even-tempered and would rather discuss a problem than drive toward violence. He remains even tempered, his only outburst comes when his weak-kneed Godson gets emotional rather than rational. He has ruled this family with an even hand for the better part of 50 years. We see that destiny hasn’t given him the promise of an heir to the throne. He has three sons, Santino (James Caan) – hot-tempered and violent; Fredo (John Cazale) – weak in heart and mind; and Michael (Al Pacino) – intelligent and patient, the most like his father and most likely to inherit the family business.

Michael remains outside the family. He goes to college, enlists in the Army, fights in World War II and returns a hero. His father wants him to use his intellect for something outside the family business – maybe politics. But the winds of destiny and circumstances draw him closer to running the family. The long-running struggle throughout the film is based around The Godfather’s refusal to get involved in the drug trade. He knows that the rackets like prostitution, gambling, alcohol are viewed by his political friends as harmless vices, however drugs are dirty and messy and unpredictable. Vito correctly guesses that it “is going to destroy us in the years to come”. Others see it differently and despite his warnings, they only see the money to be made. He is always looking ahead, like a chess master. The saddest element of The Godfather is that this nasty business of drugs will become a business that the level-headed Michael will inevitably inherit.

What makes the film work is the story construction. There are characters who are briefly introduced and given a purpose and later brought back into the story at crucial moments. Take for example Enzo, the baker. It is explained that he has came to America and joined the war effort, but now that the war is over, he will be repatriated back to Italy.. So, Enzo’s employer asks the Godfather to arrange it so that he could marry his daughter and stay in the country. Later, when we see Enzo, it is to visit The Godfather in the hospital after a botched assassination attempt and Enzo becomes a key figure in deterring a group of thugs who come to finish the job. There are all kinds of smaller characters like that who come into the film, seem to have little purpose but play key roles later.

The late film critic Gene Siskel observed that “The Godfather is about how justice denied becomes justice subverted”. This is especially true in the case of Bonesera. He had been denied justice when his daughter was assaulted by a teenage boy and now comes to the Godfather for restitution. Vito is slightly insulted that Bonasera would assume that murder is an afterthought for a mob bigshot like Corleone, but he is willing to make an adjustment for this man, reminding him that “Someday, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me”. When that day comes, the service is not beyond his means, it is not violence but a favor to make his murdered son look appropriate for his mother. Moments like this help us to understand what has been lost when The Godfather dies. The future of this world of organized crime is becoming less crafty, more hot tempered, more reactionary and less compelled to weigh their options. Listen carefully, in the film to the score which comes in under the drama, Nino Rota’s music is funerary in it’s tone, a perfect evocation of a dying age.


The Best Picture Winners: The French Connection (1971)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

If the Best Picture Oscar winners prove to be worth anything, they can at times prove to be a sturdy time capsule.  If Casablanca was reminiscent of an America that was about to shocked out of its isolationism and thrust head-long into the great cause of the Second World War, then The French Connection may very well be a mirror reflecting one of the most violent decades of the 20th century.  Fresh off of a decade that wrought assassinations and tide-turning violent protests, the crime rate in the new decade was at an all time high.  Old social standards had broken down in America revealing a primal society seemingly at war with itself.

As it had in the past, the movies moved with the winds of change and the notion of law and order as fiction went with it.  The line between cop and criminal began to blur; it was no longer good enough to simply send a crook up the river.  Movies like Dirty Harry and Death Wish would usher in a kind of lawless vigilantism that just had to end with a slimy criminal laying face up in a pool of his own blood.  In the early 70s, true crime made for the best stories.  Dirty Harry was based David Toschi*, a lead investigator in the case of the Zodiac killer; meanwhile The French Connection‘s Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle was based on real-life NYPD detective Eddie Egan and his pursuit of The French Connection, an inter-continental drug trafficking operation.

In the film, Doyle is a loose cannon, a cop who is willing to put the public in danger to bring down a cartel of drug smugglers.  This was something new in 1971.  The action scenes were brilliant especially the famous chase between a private car commandeered by Doyle and a suspect on an elevated train.  Yet, sadly, The French Connection has become dated mainly by its own success.  It would spawn a generation of lone-wolf cop movies that branded this film’s originality into a formula so standard that it would become a cliche.

* – According to an interview in Empire magazine, George Lucas stated that he was interested in the case of The Zodiac Killer and Toschi’s involvement.  His name would end up part of the first Star Wars movie.  He named Toschi Station after him.


The Best Picture Winners: Patton (1970)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

I don’t have the slightest idea what the real General George S. Patton Jr. was like.  I don’t know how he walked, how he talked, how held himself.  Truth be told, I probably couldn’t pick him out of a police lineup.  I know the red letter facts from the history books, but my mental imagery of Patton comes from the magnificent performance of George C. Scott.  It is he that comes to mind when I hear Patton’s name, not the real thing.

Scott is so magnanimous in his portrayal of Patton that I have to take pauses to find the words to even describe it.  The image of Scott as Patton, standing in front of an enormous American Flag, dressed like a profligated potentate, grouching that “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser” are as much a part of our American cinematic heritage as Rosebud, the ruby slippers, the lightsaber, Rick’s Cafe and HAL 9000.

The performance would define his career and would, in fact, define the movie more than the movie itself.  If you haven’t seen Patton in a long while then you are hard-pressed to remember anything about it outside of Scott’s performance.

Maybe that’s a good thing.  Here was a man so magnanimous, so blustery and so larger-than-life that it is only fitting that he lords over his own movie in a way that leaves everything else in tiny shadows.  Rumor and speculation about the life of Patton made him a legend in his own time and perhaps Scott enhances some of that, but thankfully he leaves us with an extraordinary portrait of one of the most colorful figures of the 20th century.

With that, I am back and forth on whether or not the film should have been rewarded with a Best Picture Oscar.  Since the whole movie is tied up in Scott’s performance, perhaps the Best Actor win was enough.  This Best Picture Oscar could easily have gone to the year’s other war epic MASH, a movie that offers more weight to cinema history because its anti-war sentiments are a fitting  measuring point to show how far Hollywood had come from the union it held with the military during World War II.

And speaking of unity, there lies a terrific irony at the center of this film.  While Patton is defined as Scott greatest acting triumph, it was an award the the actor famously declined on the grounds that actors should not be placed in competition.  He was at home on Oscar night watching the hockey game.

Despite his objections the academy would keep Scott’s Oscar available to him for the rest of his life, just in case he changed his mind (he didn’t).  It hardly matters anyway.  He is left with the legacy of playing perhaps the juiciest role any actor could ever have been given.


The Best Picture Winners: Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

The best and worst friend to the average movie is time.  Given a bredth of generations, a film can rise or fall on the strength of what it has to say or how lucky it was to happen to arrive at the right moment.  For John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy time is both a value and a curse.

The value comes in its timing.  It was released in 1969 at a moment when the massive changes in the culture were reflected in the massive changes for American cinema.  Just as the country was experiencing a cultural earthquake brought on by Vietnam, Civil Rights, assassinations and the sexual revolution, American movies were changing as well.  The youth of America made it clear that it was no longer interested in the dusty old musicals and shopworn westerns.  They wanted something that reflected how they saw the world.  In that, the shift in Hollywood’s system of self-conduct was forever altered.  The old production code fell to pieces and replaced by a crude and very errant early version of what would become the movie ratings system.

Therein lies a strange and puzzling head-scratcher: the first and only X-rated movie ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture (oddly enough, on its re-release it was given an R-rating).  Maybe that had to do with the texture of the times but watching the film I’m not sure I see where the rating was earned.  Maybe the sexual content but it seems tepid by today’s standard.

The reason that Midnight Cowboy stays with us is because of the performances of Dustin Hoffman and John Voight, two young actors both at the beginning of brilliant careers playing men who live on the fringes of society.  Voight is Joe Buck, who arrives in New York City to be a hustler and Hoffman is Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo, a pathetic con artist who becomes his manager – he knows the layout of the city and where to hook up young Joe with rich women.  What becomes of their friendship is one of the screen’s great love stories, not a romantic union, but of two people who cling to one another in a world that has become selfish and indifferent.  That world is presented to us in an opening scene when Joe Buck first arrives in New York City and passes a man in a suit lying face down on the sidewalk that no one seems to notice.  This is the world that he and Ratso will have to face.

The curse of Midnight Cowboy is also time.  While the film is a beautiful love story it’s episodic adventures often feel dated and disorganized.  There is truth and tenderness in the sad union between these two lost souls but when they head out into the world it often feels like a cartoon – like Laugh-in if it were written by Larry Gelbart.  Two scenes in particular: a bizarre trip to an upscale party and Joe Buck’s run-in with an elderly gay man (Barnard Hughes) feel forced, like they were written by someone else, apart from the two main characters and added in after the fact.

There are a lot of great virtues to Midnight Cowboy but they are overwhelmed by an equal amount of elements that don’t work, elements that were new in 1969 but have been washed pale by the adamant of time.  When the movie stays with Ratso and Joe Buck, it works.  We remember them.  We remember those two walking down the street or on the beach.  We remember the melancholy of Ratso’s illness as he sits in his filthy apartment and confesses that he’s afraid of the infirmity that will soon rob him of his faculties.  This pathetic creature in a bum’s coat breaks down his hard exterior and confesses to his friend “You know what they do to you when they know you can’t w-walk.  I’m scared.”  That’s the heart and soul of the movie and why we remember him.