THE CONTENDER: Star Wars (1977)
Number of Nominations: 10 – Picture, Supporting Actor (Alec Guinness), Director (George Lucas), Original Screenplay (George Lucas), Art Direction/Set Direction (John Barry, Norman Reynolds, Leslie Dilley & Roger Christian), Sound (Don MacDougall, Ray West, Bob Minkler & Derek Ball), Original Score (John Williams), Film Editing (Paul Hirsch, Marcia Lucas & Richard Chew), Costume Design (John Mollo), Visual Effects (John Stears, John Dykstra, Richard Edlund, Grant McCune & Robert Blalack)
Number of Wins: 6 (Art Direction/Set Direction, Sound, Original Score, Film Editing, Costume Design and Visual Effects) plus a Special Achievement Award to Ben Burtt for Sound Effects
Whenever people complain about the Oscars (which happens pretty much any time the Oscars are discussed), they’ll often say that the Academy is a bunch of elitist snobs. Popular movies, the ones normal people actually like to go see and enjoy, are almost never nominated and they certainly never win.
But even a cursory glance at a list of nominees over the years shows this isn’t true. Plenty of blockbusters have been nominated over the years. Some of them, like The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, Titanic, and Gladiator, even won. In those rare cases where a movie actually becomes a phenomenon, it becomes almost impossible for the Academy to ignore.
That was certainly the case back in 1977 when Star Wars, not yet Episode IV or A New Hope or any of that other nonsense, crashed Hollywood’s biggest night with ten nominations. I don’t imagine anyone believed that an homage to Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers would actually win Best Picture and I’d give just about anything to have been a fly on the wall to hear Alec Guinness’ reaction at being nominated for Best Supporting Actor. I’d bet that he a good, long laugh over that one.
Don’t get me wrong. When I was a kid, I loved Star Wars. I turned 8 in 1977, so I was the movie’s target audience. I saw it countless times in the theatre, I had the toys and action figures, I collected the Marvel comic book. If it had anything to do with Star Wars, I wanted it.
You’ll note I used the past tense. I don’t love Star Wars anymore. I still like it very much but it’s always dangerous to revisit a movie you loved as a kid. There’s always a risk that you’ll be a little embarrassed by it and wonder why you ever liked it in the first place. Fortunately (and perhaps surprisingly, if you haven’t seen it in a while) Star Wars holds up. Watching it again recently, I enjoyed it and could see why I loved it so much back then. It’s a grand, rousing space adventure and I’d certainly never seen anything like it before.
But I don’t love it anymore. Part of it is simply that I grew up, my tastes expanded, and I moved on. I also loved Kraft Macaroni & Cheese when I was a kid. If I had some today, I might still like it. But I haven’t had any in years and I haven’t really missed it.
But another part of it is that George Lucas couldn’t leave well enough alone. It’s ironic that the version of Star Wars that’s widely available today isn’t the same movie that won six Academy Awards. Starting with the 1997 Special Edition re-releases, Lucas has continued fiddling around with the film, tweaking effects, adding scenes, and generally making a mess of what was perfectly fine to begin with.
All of the new digital effects are unnecessary and distracting. That would be bad enough. But the movie won an Oscar for film editing. Watching the new tinkered-with version, you’d be hard-pressed to understand why. Establishing shots now go on too long, simply to give you enough time to properly appreciate all the added bits of business.
Lucas’ biggest mistake was adding back in a deleted scene of Han Solo encountering Jabba the Hutt before taking off from Mos Eisley. Supposedly, Lucas cut the scene because he couldn’t afford to create the stop-motion creature Harrison Ford would have been interacting with. Maybe so, but it seems more likely that it was dropped because the scene serves absolutely no purpose. It simply repeats almost verbatim the same information we just heard in the cantina scene with Greedo. It slows the movie down just when it should be picking up the pace.
George Lucas’ steadfast refusal to release the original theatrical versions of these movies borders on mania. In 2006, the theatrical version was finally released as a limited edition DVD. But Lucas stacked the deck against them by putting out transfers that were done for a laserdisc release back in 1993. You could almost hear him saying, “See? Don’t my new versions look so much better?”
I know, I know, every time Star Wars gets messed with, the Internet goes ballistic. It would be easy to write it all off as fanboy nitpicking. But it goes beyond whether or not Han shot first. Take another look at the names of the people who won Oscars for their work on Star Wars. George Lucas is not one of them. No matter what he’d like to believe, Lucas did not single-handedly create this film. To continually change it is a sign of disrespect for his collaborators. It says their work wasn’t good enough.
If you want to look at Star Wars as just one small part of a much bigger saga that begins with Jar Jar Binks and ends with an Ewok hoedown, that’s fine. That’s certainly how George Lucas sees it. But if you want to view it as a significant cultural landmark from 1977, that’s become increasingly difficult. Movies are products of the times in which they were made. Audiences should always have the option to see them within their proper context. Maybe someday, we’ll be able to do that again with Star Wars.
Star Wars, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, is available on Blu-ray and DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.