Monday, April 15, 2024

The Way We Are: The 1974 & 2024 Academy Awards In Focus

“Memories light the colors of my mind.” Lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman passed the torch to composer Marvin Hamlisch as the nostalgia representative for the 1974 Academy Awards 50 years ago (presented April 2nd, 1974). Hamlisch became the first man to win three Academy Awards (without winning Best Picture) in a single night – for Best Song, Best Score for Sydney Pollack’s “The Way We Were” and Best Score Adaptation for Scott Joplin’s ragtime tunes in George Roy Hill’s “The Sting”). But he also set the tone of a ceremony that struggled between reminiscing about past times and aligning itself with the times (photographer and gallery owner Robert Opel as a streaker certainly gave a modern sign of the times -despite presenter David Niven’s condescending tone and remarks).

“The Sting” was the big winner in the 46th Academy Awards (7 wins), a light-hearted caper film that looked at the 1936 mob past as a case of settling personal affairs -let the best conman win. Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” is the frontrunner for the 2024 Academy Awards (and possibly a big winner), with 13 nominations -and a story set in the 1940s and 1950s. And, even though “Oppenheimer’s” storyline shares a lot with the witchhunt of the McCarthy era present in “The Way We Were,” its directing essence is closer to “The Sting.” Choice and responsibility here becomes a matter of individual performance, excitement, guilt, and action in an equally intricate plot sequence -in which Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer pays alternatively the role of either the rookie Johnie Hooker (Robert Redford) or the seasoned Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), who can manipulate things and situations.

A sense of needed humanism permeated and still permeates the Academy Awards. Check, for instance, John Houseman’s much-deserved win for Best Supporting Actor (as grumpy, stern but just University professor Charles W. Kingsfield in James Bridges’ “The Paper Chase”). Now, compare this with Paul Giamatti’s dominant, Oscar-nominated turn as a disparaged Classics teacher who still needs to do good in Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers” -or even with Jeffrey Wright’s “bad lesson in screenwriting” role and performance in Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction.” The trend was evident even in the 1974 Best Foreign Language category, in which Truffaut’s cinephile “Day for Night” won over the much more provocative “Turkish Delight” by Paul Verhoeven, in his sophomore feature effort (and a Rutger Hauer in full naked glory).

Like “Oppenheimer,” Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” still needs to update the 1950s/early 60s era with a more critical, feminist twist. Similarly to the much popular “The Way We Were,” another case in critical nostalgia, neither Gerwig nor Pollack were nominated for their efforts. Yet, for all the talk on feminist empowerment at the 2024 Academy Awards, a more cautious judgment needs to be made. Almost all female roles nominated in the 1974 Academy Awards offered more dynamic and thoughtful portraits of women fighting for healthier relationships. Streisand’s Katie Morosky in “The Way We Were” is a no-holds-barred fighter for the love of her life -and she loses in the end. Marsha Mason (as the sex worker Maggie Paul) in Mark Rydell’s “The Cinderella Liberty” fights for her relationship and living conditions (being a single mother); Glenda Jackson (and that year’s Oscar recipient) as Vicki Alessio goes knowingly into an affair with a married man (George Segal) in Melvin Frank’s “A Touch of Class” and still demands their own joint time together; Ellen Burstyn fights for her daughter’s life in William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist.” It is only Joanne Woodward as the depressed Rita in Gilbert Cates’ “Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams” that proves the exception to the rule (but Joanne Woodward never performs as a depressed loser either).

Compare this with the roles (not the performances) of this year’s lot. Carey Mulligan has to be the wife of a cheating husband in Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro” -with gay men parading as souvenirs in the film. Lily Gladstone is the ever-suffering wife in Scorsese’s “Killers Of The Flower Moon.” Emma Stone is the manipulated automaton that has energy but no knowledge in Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things;” her trajectory is supposedly the road to independence, but she still returns to twisted household duties (as a manager now, no less). That leaves Sandra Hüller in Justine Triet’s “Anatomy Of A Fall” and Annette Bening in Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s “Nyad” as the aging swimmer to fight for their truth (the former with a rather guilty shadow over her innocence). All five performances are stellar, yet most of the actors have to defend characters lost, looking for (instead of immediately grabbing) empowerment opportunities (Even in “Barbie,” the famous militant monologue is uttered by the Oscar-nominated America Ferrera, a supporting character).

Well, even in 1974, things were not that rosy. Bernardo Bertolucci’s now considered problematic “Last Tango in Paris” received two Academy Awards nominations (Best Director, Best Leading Actor for Marlon Brando -but, interestingly, was not nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. On the other hand, Ingmar Bergman’s mourning drama of family relations “Cries and Whispers” managed to grab 5 Academy Award nominations, testifying an overwhelming sense of acknowledgment for auteurish efforts -yet only Sven Nykvist was honored for his cinematography (Would a similar thing happen to another European director, Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things” [11 noms], a less existential and more twisted turn on family relationships?). Europeans wandered around the 46th Academy Award nominations list -but they were not considered seriously enough as nominees. Jean-Pierre Léaud, Truffaut’s cinematic alter ego, appears in two of the nominated films (without himself being a nominee): the French master’s “Day for Night” and Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris.” Max von Sydow, an Ingmar Bergman regular, appears in a non-Bergman film (“The Exorcist”) the same year Bergman gets his 5 Academy Award nominations – but no nomination was reserved for the Swedish actor. Sandra Hüller in 2024 is luckier: apart from her Academy Award nomination, she appears in the Oscar-nominated film (and most probably an Oscar winner) “The Zone Of Interest” by Jonathan Glazer, switching from the English of the “Anatomy Of A Fall” to German.

Moving back to the US 50 years ago, we find most young guns who would dominate the American cinema in the following decades (or fade away): George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola for “American Graffiti,” Peter Bogdanovich (“Paper Moon”), Hal Ashby (“The Last Detail”) and Sidney Lumet (“Serpico”). Scorsese and Spielberg are here absent, but both were present in the 2024 nominations, the latter for his producing task in Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro.” Hal Ashby and Sidney Lumet were present with their films, but not in name. In 2024, Todd Haynes, with the critically acclaimed “May December,” shares this dubious honor: the film secured just a single screenplay nomination (written by Samy Burch & Alex Mechanik).

And, of course, the elephant in the room: “The Exorcist,” which got 10 Academy Award nominations -winning one for William Peter Blatty’s adapted screenplay from his book. Friedkin’s film, with its ‘crisis of faith’ focus, understandably (and unjustly) went unacknowledged. Hopefully, Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone Of Interest,” another study on the crisis of humanism and faith, will be awarded in 2024.

UK filmmaker Andrew Haigh (“All Of Us Strangers“) is nowhere to be found in the 2024 Academy Award nominations; his fellow UK director Nicholas Roeg didn’t fare any better with his thriller “Don’t Look Now” (1973), another intense study of existential mourning turning into the metaphysical realm. Yet, the turn to nostalgia and humanism has its perks as well. Jack Lemmon won in 1974 a (much delayed) second Academy Award for a businessman in distress; this was in John G. Avildsen’s “Save the Tiger,” in which Lemmon won over Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, and Robert Redford (what a team). Henri Langlois won an honorary Oscar for his incomparable work in founding and keeping the cinematic memory alive with Cinémathèque Française, a paradigm for other cinematheques to follow.

This year’s Academy Awards ceremony will again juggle between nostalgia signs and the signs of the times (think of Celine Song’s “Past Lives,” or the exquisite Franco-Tunisian doc “Four Daughters” by ‎Kaouther Ben Hania). Some cases integrate both cultural memory and current reflection, such as the deeply felt, Holocaust-themed animation short “Letter to A Pig” by Tal Kantor. As another 1974 Oscar-nominated song from “Cinderella Liberty” proclaims (lyrics: Paul Williams, music: John Williams), “It’s nice to be around” during the 2024 Academy Awards ceremony.

Are you watching the Academy Awards this Sunday? Were you alive when the 1974 ceremony took place? Please let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account. Also, please check out their latest Oscar winner predictions here and the 2023 precursor awards tally here.

You can follow Vassilis and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars & Film on Twitter at @vkroustallis

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