THE CONTENDER: The Turning Point (1977)
Number of Nominations: 11 – Picture, Actress (Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine), Supporting Actor (Mikhail Baryshnikov), Supporting Actress (Leslie Browne), Director (Herbert Ross), Original Screenplay (Arthur Laurents), Cinematography (Robert Surtees), Art Direction/Set Direction (Albert Brenner & Marvin March), Sound (Theodore Soderberg, Paul Wells, Douglas O. Williams & Jerry Jost), Film Editing (William Reynolds)
Number of Wins: None
Pop quiz, hotshot. Which movie was the biggest loser in Oscar history, winning none of the multiple awards it was nominated for? If you answered The Color Purple, you’re only half right. Spielberg’s movie is actually tied for this dubious honor with Herbert Ross’s The Turning Point. But while most remember the Academy’s shut-out of The Color Purple as a form of highway robbery, no one really blinked an eye when The Turning Point lost, even at the time.
Some of the reasons for this are fairly obvious. For one thing, there’s nothing even remotely controversial about The Turning Point. For another, Steven Spielberg’s reputation has only increased since The Color Purple lost out. Today, the idea of a Steven Spielberg film is so ingrained in pop culture that Super 8 can be simply described as an homage to Spielberg and audiences immediately know what to expect.
Herbert Ross, who passed away in 2001, is most often remembered as a capable craftsman but not a filmmaker with his own distinctive style. He began his career as a Broadway choreographer and many of his best known films were musicals, including Funny Lady, Pennies From Heaven, and Footloose. He also frequently helmed comedies, often written by Neil Simon, including California Suite and The Sunshine Boys. In fact, Ross had two films up for Oscars in 1977: The Turning Point and Simon’s The Goodbye Girl, for which Richard Dreyfuss won Best Actor.
In the immediate aftermath of the awards, the media had a lot to talk about, all of which was more interesting than the fact that The Turning Point hadn’t won anything. Woody Allen won several awards for Annie Hall and literally could not have cared less. Not only did he not attend the ceremony, he didn’t even bother watching it on TV. He was busy playing clarinet at Michael’s Pub in New York, as he usually did on Mondays.
However, the evening’s biggest brouhaha came when Vanessa Redgrave won Best Supporting Actress for her role in Julia. Redgrave’s nomination had been picketed by members of the Jewish Defense League, upset over her very vocal support of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. After she won, she used her acceptance speech to rail against the “Zionist hoodlums” gathered outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. In light of all this, the fact that a ballet movie had just lost more Oscars than any other film in history didn’t really matter all that much.
My mother took me to see The Turning Point back in 1977, presumably because she couldn’t find a sitter. I remembered nothing about it other than my physical presence in the theater. Of course, I was an eight-year-old boy at the time, probably upset that my mom was dragging me to a ballet movie when Star Wars was most likely still playing right next door. So I was curious to see The Turning Point again for the first time, hopefully from a slightly more mature perspective, to see how it held up. Unfortunately, it doesn’t hold up all that well.
The movie is really a cliché-ridden soap opera with MacLaine and Bancroft as two old friends who used to be friendly rivals in the American Ballet Company. When MacLaine became pregnant with her first child, she dropped out to marry and raise a family. Bancroft went on to become a star, touring the world and becoming a legend. After MacLaine’s oldest daughter (Leslie Browne) is accepted into the company, old jealousies reignite. MacLaine resents Bancroft’s stardom, Bancroft becomes a surrogate mother to Browne, and every dramatic beat of the story can be recited by heart by anyone who’s ever seen an episode of Days Of Our Lives.
Even so, it’s not hard to understand why The Turning Point garnered so many nominations in spite of, or perhaps because of, its familiarity. Hollywood loves a backstage drama and this one revels in all the old tropes. MacLaine and Bancroft do the best they can with the melodramatic dialogue they’re forced to deliver. After Natalie Portman won her Oscar for Black Swan, there was a minor, pointless controversy over how much dancing she actually did herself. The Turning Point sidesteps this issue by barely showing Bancroft on stage at all, leaving the dancing to trained professionals.
In fact, there really is only one reason to watch The Turning Point and that’s Mikhail Baryshnikov. It’s hard for me to imagine that some may now know Baryshnikov primarily through his stint on Sex And The City. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, he was a big deal and watching The Turning Point, it’s easy to see why. He moves with an almost preternatural grace, spinning, twisting, and leaping in a way that seems to defy gravity. When Ross turns his cameras on Baryshnikov and the company, the movie truly does come alive.
If you liked Black Swan, I encourage you to check out The Turning Point. It may not be as good a film but in some ways, it may be the better ballet movie. At least here, the dancers look like they’re enjoying themselves. Compare their faces to those in Black Swan, where everyone acts as though they’ve been condemned by a vengeful god to painfully contort their bodies for all eternity. In Darren Aronofsky’s film, it’s almost as if the dancers are driven to do something they hate. In Ross’ world, we see them doing what they love. But when they stop dancing and start talking, you realize that this time, the Academy got it right.
The Turning Point was available on DVD from Anchor Bay (under license from 20th Century Fox) but that release is now out of print. For those with region-free players, there are several import options available, including a Danish Blu-ray release.