An Honor To Be Nominated: The Blind Side

THE CONTENDER: The Blind Side (2009)

Number of Nominations: 2 – Picture, Actress (Sandra Bullock)

Number of Wins: 1 (Actress)

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences increased the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten back in 2009, it was supposed to increase the likelihood of audience-pleasing blockbusters getting into the race. It was a move intended to boost the ceremony’s dwindling viewership by giving Joe Sixpack and Suzy Chardonnay a horse in the race. It wasn’t necessarily a terrible idea, although it hasn’t really worked out that way in practice. This year’s highest-grossing nominee, The Martian, was only the 8th biggest hit of 2015. That’s certainly respectable but not the kind of fanbase that inspires the Titanic-level passion AMPAS was counting on. Viewership for last February’s telecast was down from last year, ranking as the least-watched Oscar ceremony since before the rule change went into effect.

But the new rule did actually seem to have the desired effect that first year. Viewership went up, with almost 42 million Americans tuning in (as opposed to about 34 million this year). The year’s highest-grossing movie did indeed secure a Best Picture nod (although, to be fair, Avatar probably would have received it anyway), as did Pixar’s Up, which is still one of their biggest hits. But arguably the biggest beneficiary of Oscar’s bigger tent that year was the feel-good smash The Blind Side.

Movies like The Blind Side very rarely get nominated for Academy Awards. On the surface, this belongs to the subgenre of inspirational real-life sports dramas that became increasingly popular in the 2000s. Disney practically created an algorithm dedicated to cranking them out, from The Rookie (also directed by Blind Side’s John Lee Hancock) to Miracle to Glory Road to the more recent Million Dollar Arm. As much as Oscar is a sucker for a good biopic, it doesn’t seem to have a lot of use for sports movies (unless that sport happens to be boxing for some reason).

Even more unusual than its subject matter, however, is its politics. People have complained about Hollywood’s “liberal agenda” for so long that it’s no longer even a cliché. It’s now simply an assumed fact. But The Blind Side is unabashedly a Red State movie, even if its politics are more implicit than explicit. The closest the movie gets to party politics is a moment when Kathy Bates, interviewing for the job of tutor to Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), cautiously tells Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) that she’s a Democrat as though she were confessing that she’s a convicted felon.

Hancock never foregrounds the movie’s conservative nature, an approach that works for the most part and is often refreshing. The Tuohy family’s Christian faith is neither denied nor overly emphasized. Too often, movies treat religious belief in either a condescending manner or, in the case of the increasing number of faith-based features, as a means to proselytize. Here, it’s simply an inherent part of their lives, as it is for most people of all faiths.

Even a later moment that invokes a more contentious Republican issue works in context. Leigh Anne responds to a threat from a street-level drug dealer (Irone Singleton) by warning him, “I’m a member of the N.R.A. and I’m always packing.” That line is a lot more loaded today than it was even seven years ago. But in the context of the movie, it works. It’s less a pro-gun sentiment than an anti-bullying one, displaying Leigh Anne’s protective, maternal instincts. It’s an important, effective moment precisely because of how underplayed and matter-of-fact it is. Standing up to this guy is not a big deal or a supreme act of courage for Bullock’s character. It’s simply the way she goes through her life every day.

The Blind Side does a lot of things well, especially in its depiction of Leigh Anne Tuohy and her family. And that’s great but it also ends up turning Michael Oher into an observer to his own story. A lot could be said about where this movie fits in to the long history of “White Savior” films. But the fact that this is based on a true story makes that a trickier landscape to negotiate. I have no doubt that Michael Oher loves his family very much. But I’m also quite confident that his rise to football stardom wasn’t just the result of genetics and a puppy-dog-like devotion to protecting the people he cares about, which is essentially what the movie suggests.

Quinton Aaron plays Oher as a sweet, shy, instantly likable guy. With his soft eyes and wounded expression, he may be the least intimidating 6’8” giant in movie history. And for all the adversity and hardship Oher had to overcome as a kid, almost none of it is actually in the movie. Literally everybody likes him to some degree, even the dealers and addicts in his old neighborhood. They only threaten him after he loses his temper on them defending his new adopted family. If The Blind Side has any bad guys, it’s just the abstract concepts of Ignorance, Poverty and Racism.

In many ways, race is The Blind Side’s blind side. Apart from Aaron, practically the only people of color are the people who live below the very clean and art-directed poverty line on the other side of the tracks. Which is odd, considering that Oher is brought to Wingate Christian School by an African-American mechanic trying to enroll his own son as well as Big Mike. The school’s board of admissions quickly approves the other boy but he’s never seen or heard of again. The film goes to great, almost absurd lengths to isolate Michael when it really doesn’t need to. What it ought to do instead is put us in his head so we can feel the drive and survival skills he clearly possessed. He’s far too passive for too much of the film.

But the filmmakers clearly decided early on that they weren’t making The Michael Oher Story. This is The Leigh Anne Tuohy Story but even there, it’s only marginally successful. Sandra Bullock’s nomination (and win) for Best Actress was considerably less of a surprise than the movie’s Best Picture nod. Here was a very well-liked movie star in a juicy role that played to all of the strengths and attributes that made her an audience favorite in the first place. The Oscar was practically a foregone conclusion. But it’s a bit of a curious role in that it doesn’t really have a dramatic arc. Bullock nails the character and is extremely effective and moving in moments tamping her emotions down beneath her all-business exterior. But when one of her ladies-who-lunch friends comments, “You’re changing that boy’s life,” her response (“No. He’s changing mine.”) feels more like it was dictated by the Screenwriter’s Bible than a genuine reply. By the end of the movie, she seems like pretty much the same person she was to begin with, only now she has an adopted son.

Had it been released a year earlier, The Blind Side would probably not have received a Best Picture nomination (although Bullock would certainly still have been a contender in her category). While it’s hard to argue with the movie’s crowd-pleasing success, John Lee Hancock isn’t a particularly inspired or challenging filmmaker. There are important issues to deal with inside The Blind Side but the movie itself is uninterested and incapable of addressing them. And maybe that’s OK. After all, there are plenty of other movies capable of taking a more nuanced look at these themes and ideas. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with a movie that simply wants its audience to be a little bit more compassionate toward each other.

The Blind Side is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video.

An Honor To Be Nominated: A Touch Of Class

THE CONTENDER: A Touch Of Class (1973)

Number of Nominations: 5 – Picture, Actress (Glenda Jackson), Original Screenplay (Melvin Frank & Jack Rose), Original Song (“All That Love Went To Waste,” music by George Barrie, lyrics by Sammy Cahn), Original Score (John Cameron)

Number of Wins: 1 (Actress)

In box office circles, you’ll occasionally hear talk of the “Oscar bump”, the supposed lift in a movie’s revenue after it’s nominated for Academy Awards. It’s a temporary effect, of course, but it’s curious just how short-lived the Oscar bump can be. You might think that an Oscar win would give a film some kind of immortality but it isn’t true. Case in point: the almost-forgotten Best Picture nominee and Best Actress winner A Touch Of Class.

I’m an active user of Letterboxd, the movie-lover’s social network, and one of the features I enjoy is learning who else has seen a particular film. When I watched A Touch Of Class, I was surprised that only 105 other people had seen it. Not 105 of my friends, 105 Letterboxd users period. By comparison, 5,839 people have watched that year’s Best Picture winner, The Sting. What makes that low figure even more of a shock is the fact that A Touch Of Class was actually a pretty good-sized hit back in 1973, riding a wave of popularity to those five nominations.

The movie itself is a trifle and, like the dessert, it hasn’t aged particularly well. George Segal stars as an American insurance adjuster living in London with his wife and family. He has a chance encounter with Glenda Jackson, a fashion designer and divorced mother of two. Sparks fly and soon the two of them are off to Spain for an illicit affair. After a rocky start that almost has them calling the whole thing off before it even gets started, the pair begins to fall in love. Returning to London, they decide to keep the affair going, renting a cheap flat in a shady part of town (all the girls who live in the building have the surname “French”) and getting together for secret trysts whenever possible.

A Touch Of Class was co-written and directed by Melvin Frank, a member of the old guard in Hollywood who cut his teeth writing for Bob Hope and Danny Kaye vehicles. On the surface, A Touch Of Class seems very modern and sophisticated. But deep down, it’s a resolutely old-fashioned movie that only works as well as it does thanks to Segal and especially Jackson.

George Segal was at the height of his popularity in 1973, coming off of such hits as The Owl And The Pussycat. Glenda Jackson, on the other hand, was actively looking to change her image. She’d already won an Oscar a few years earlier for her role in Ken Russell’s Women In Love and was nominated again for John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday. In other words, she was considered a very capital-S Serious Actress. With A Touch Of Class, she was making a bid for more mainstream commercial success.

Segal and Jackson have an undeniable chemistry and that rapport makes it easy to gloss over some of the movie’s bumpier patches. Because it’s fun to watch their banter, you can almost overlook the fact that Segal’s character is a fairly unlikable cad, eager to cheat on his wife for no good reason. We don’t see a lot of his wife but she seems perfectly nice and inoffensive. It never seems like there’s trouble at home or friction in their relationship, so Segal’s really just a bastard, albeit a charming one.

At least Jackson is fairly upfront about her desires and expectations. She’s looking for something less than a relationship but something a little more than a one-night stand. She seems to realize that the smart play would have been to end things after the trip to Spain. The fact that she keeps seeing Segal anyway doesn’t make her seem stupid or weak, just human. On screen, Glenda Jackson had a presence that always made her seem much smarter than everybody else in the film (probably because she really was). Her work in A Touch Of Class probably wasn’t the most-deserving performance up for the Oscar that year. Personally, I would have given the award to Ellen Burstyn for The Exorcist. Perhaps a more appropriate award for Jackson would have been Most Valuable Player.

Even at the time, A Touch Of Class was an unlikely Oscar contender. It would be a similar situation twenty years later when the fluffy Four Weddings And A Funeral found itself battling it out for the top prize with heavyweights Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction. There have certainly been worse movies nominated for Best Picture than A Touch Of Class but very few as inconsequential.

A Touch Of Class is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Tootsie

THE CONTENDER: Tootsie (1982)

Number of Nominations: 10 – Picture, Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Supporting Actress (Teri Garr and Jessica Lange), Director (Sydney Pollack), Original Screenplay (Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal & Don McGuire), Cinematography (Owen Roizman), Sound (Arthur Piantadosi, Les Fresholtz, Dick Alexander & Les Lazarowitz), Original Song (“It Might Be You,” music by Dave Grusin, lyrics by Alan & Marilyn Bergman), Film Editing (Fredric Steinkamp & William Steinkamp)

Number of Wins: 1 (Supporting Actress, Jessica Lange)

It’s a commonly held belief that when it comes to the Academy Awards, comedies get no respect. There’s an element of truth to that. Comedic actors are rarely recognized for their performances, at least in comedies. The best way for a comedian to nab an Oscar is to get serious, as in the cases of Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, and Mo’Nique. There are a handful of examples of actors winning for a comedy, Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda leaps to mind, but these are rare.

When it comes to Best Picture, comedies are infrequently nominated and almost never win. The last comedies to win were The Artist in 2012 and Shakespeare In Love back in 1999. Neither of those movies are exactly what you’d consider typical contemporary comedies. Prior to them, comedy winners included Annie Hall, The Sting, Tom Jones, The Apartment, You Can’t Take It With You, and It Happened One Night. You might be able to make a case for a couple others but not many.

The Academy seems to think that making comedies is easy. After all, they’re fun, right? They look like everyone was having fun. So making them is a lot simpler than recreating World War II or showing someone suffering from a debilitating disease. The reality is that making a great comedy is extraordinarily difficult. Every single element has to work in perfect harmony, from the script to the performances to the direction to the cinematography to the editing. If just one thing is out of sync, the whole operation falls apart.

In 1982, the Academy momentarily recognized how much work went into crafting a great contemporary comedy and honored Tootsie with 10 nominations. If you haven’t seen the movie in a while, that may seem excessive. But rewatching it again recently, it struck me as entirely appropriate. Tootsie is indeed a great comedy, one of the best of its decade, and it more than holds up over 30 years later.

The movie was a passion project for Dustin Hoffman and he spent several years developing the script with playwright Murray Schisgal and Larry Gelbart, among other, uncredited writers. The attention to detail pays off. The movie could easily have been an unbelievable, cross-dressing farce. But the characters are so richly developed that the movie strikes a chord. You never for one second question Hoffman’s decision as difficult actor Michael Dorsey to put on a dress and audition for a role on a soap opera as Dorothy Michaels.

Both of Hoffman’s performances are relaxed, engaging, and hilarious. The movie cannily plays off the star’s own reputation as an intense, difficult method actor. Tootsie features him at his warmest and most sympathetic. Hoffman takes what could have been a broad caricature and creates a wholly relatable human being.

The film’s supporting cast is no less perfect. Stalwart character actor Dabney Coleman has one of his juiciest roles as the lecherous TV director. Bill Murray graciously removed his name from the opening credits and advertising so audiences wouldn’t expect a Bill Murray movie along the lines of Stripes. But his appearance is crucial. Hoffman needs a foil that’s his equal and the two of them have an easy rapport that immediately conveys the characters’ history.

Perhaps the movie’s shrewdest casting was director Sydney Pollack’s appearance as Michael’s agent. Hoffman had to persuade Pollack into taking on the role. In fact, Dabney Coleman was originally cast in the part. But Pollack turned out to be the right choice. His incredulous reaction upon meeting Dorothy Michaels for the first time is worth the price of admission.

In particular, Tootsie was a tremendous vindication for Jessica Lange. She’d made her film debut in Dino De Laurentiis’ disastrous 1976 remake of King Kong. After that debacle, she found it almost impossible to find work. She subsequently made only a few film appearances until returning with a vengeance in 1982 with acclaimed performances in both Tootsie and Frances, eventually winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Her win was not without controversy. After all, her role in Tootsie was the leading lady. It was widely assumed she was promoted in the Supporting Actress category so she wouldn’t be competing with her own work in Frances for Best Actress. Sure enough, she was nominated in both categories, much to the annoyance of costar Teri Garr. When both women were nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Garr resigned herself to the fact that she would probably lose to Lange, especially since it was widely (and correctly) assumed that the Best Actress race already belonged to Meryl Streep for Sophie’s Choice.

Sydney Pollack would go on to win Best Picture and Director a few years later for Out Of Africa, an interminable slog of a movie which is nevertheless exactly the kind of prestigious, sweeping epic the Academy loves to throw Oscars at. Tootsie is a far superior movie but despite its many nominations, it never had much of a shot. It’s funny, it’s contemporary, and it makes it all look easy. That isn’t the kind of movie that wins awards. But it is the kind of movie that has a legacy far beyond its initial run.

Tootsie is available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Star Wars

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.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Erin Brockovich

THE CONTENDER: Erin Brockovich (2000)

Number of Nominations: 5 – Picture, Actress (Julia Roberts), Supporting Actor (Albert Finney), Director (Steven Soderbergh), Original Screenplay (Susannah Grant)

Number of Wins: 1 (Actress)

When the nominations for the 73rd Academy Awards were announced, it was by no means a sure thing that Steven Soderbergh would pull off his double-nod hat trick. Traffic was definitely on most voters’ radar. But his other 2000 release, Erin Brockovich, had come out back in March, almost an entire year earlier. Oscar voters have notoriously short memories.

Only one nomination was really a lock and that was Julia Roberts for Best Actress. Roberts had been nominated twice before and the fact that she would ultimately win this time is about as close as the Oscars get to a sure thing. Her competition included Juliette Binoche for Chocolat, Joan Allen for The Contender, Ellen Burstyn for Requiem For A Dream, and Laura Linney for You Can Count On Me. Great actresses and fine performances all but if you missed that category on Oscar night, you should have seriously considered retiring from the office Oscar pool.

But Erin Brockovich ultimately did just as well as Traffic in terms of nominations, each film scoring five nods. Interestingly enough, the two films competed against each other in several categories, including Best Picture, Best Director (which Soderbergh won for Traffic), and Best Supporting Actor (Albert Finney lost out to Traffic’s Benicio Del Toro). If Erin Brockovich had been based on a book, the two films would have competed in the screenplay category, too.

Today, Traffic is more often discussed and analyzed while Erin Brockovich is mainly remembered as the movie that finally won Julia Roberts an Oscar. That’s to be expected. Traffic is certainly the more complex, ambitious, and technically impressive of the two. But Erin Brockovich definitely has more going for it than merely the sight of America’s sweetheart swearing like a sailor and running around the desert in push-up bras.

What’s most striking about Erin Brockovich is that it’s a big Hollywood movie disguised as a gritty independent feature. Soderbergh was the ideal choice for such a project. He was capable of taking the best elements of each, making something more complex than your usual mainstream legal drama but also more crowd-pleasing than a typical indie.

What Soderbergh and writer Susannah Grant realized was that for the movie to work, it needed to tell two stories. As a biopic of the real Erin Brockovich, a single, out-of-work mom turned legal researcher, part of the overcoming adversity story needs to be about the landmark lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric. And while it would be easy to just tell the PG&E story, the audience won’t really care about it unless we care about Brockovich.

To accomplish this, Soderbergh necessarily relies on movie shortcuts, first and foremost of which is the casting of Julia Roberts. Roberts was (and is) a hugely successful movie star, beloved and idolized but accessible. Before the opening credits have finished, we’ve seen her fumble her way through a bad job interview, learned she’s twice divorced with three kids, and get in a car accident. Within five minutes, the audience is already on her side.

But what makes Roberts’ performance so interesting is that she doesn’t soften the character to play for sympathy. As Roberts plays her, Brockovich is a fairly abrasive personality. Sure, she’s usually right and she’s undeniably smart, quick-witted, and frequently charming. But she’s also tactless, short-tempered, and rude. The audience isn’t turned off by this behavior because Soderbergh surrounds Roberts with actors more than capable of holding their own against her.

Albert Finney is terrific as Erin’s boss, Ed Masry. It’s satisfying when Erin tells off the prissy, button-down, high-priced lawyer who underestimates her ability. But it’s equally satisfying in the very next scene when Ed tells Erin that she went too far. Aaron Eckhart could have had a thankless role as Erin’s biker neighbor turned babysitter turned boyfriend, George. But he delivers a subtle, complex performance. When he leaves, we get that Erin is finally getting a level of respect and satisfaction in her work that she’s never before experienced. But we also kind of wonder what took him so long to get fed up with her.

More than ten years after its release, it’s tempting to view Erin Brockovich as one of those movies that snuck into the Best Picture race purely on the strength of a powerhouse movie star performance…such as, oh I don’t know, The Blind Side maybe? But revisiting it, it holds up better than you might think.

Steven Soderbergh is (or, I suppose I should say, was*) one of the few filmmakers who could comfortably move between the mainstream Hollywood and low-budget independent worlds. Given the subject matter and setting, some might consider classifying this with his indie work. But make no mistake. Erin Brockovich is a big, glossy Hollywood studio picture. It just happens to be an extremely smart and accomplished one. Those are rare but they do exist.

Erin Brockovich is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

*2017 Update: Nope, it’s “is” again.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Traffic

THE CONTENDER: Traffic (2000)

Number of Nominations: 5 – Picture, Supporting Actor (Benicio Del Toro), Director (Steven Soderbergh), Adapted Screenplay (Stephen Gaghan), Film Editing (Stephen Mirrione)

Number of Wins: 4 (Supporting Actor, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing)

Steven Soderbergh released two films in 2000, Erin Brockovich and Traffic. Both were critically acclaimed. Both were hits at the box office, each one making over $100 million. And when Oscar time rolled around, both received multiple nominations. In fact, Soderbergh became the first filmmaker since 1938 to receive two nominations in the same year for Best Director. But while the previous record-holder, Michael Curtiz, went home that night empty handed, Soderbergh actually won.

For a while, it seemed as though Traffic might also win Best Picture. But the Oscars played out differently that year. The year’s biggest prize went to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, making it one of the few Best Picture winners not to be honored in either the directing or writing categories. Even so, Traffic did extremely well, winning four of the five categories for which it was nominated.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Traffic won accolades and awards. But it is somewhat surprising that it was a hit. This is a complex, multilayered story with a sprawling cast of characters that rarely intersect in obvious ways.

Michael Douglas plays the newly-appointed drug czar whose new job takes a back seat when he discovers his daughter (Erika Christensen) is herself heavily addicted. Benicio Del Toro is a mildly corrupt Tijuana cop who finds his own limits when recruited by General Salazar (Tomas Milian), who wants to break the Tijuana cartel for reasons of his own. Catherine Zeta-Jones is a wealthy mother-to-be who only discovers her “legitimate businessman” husband (Steven Bauer) is a trafficker after he’s dragged to prison by the DEA. Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman are DEA agents assigned to protect the key witness in Bauer’s case. And those are just the main plot threads.

But Soderbergh, who almost always acts as his own cinematographer under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, developed a unique visual shorthand to keep the various stories clear. Working with color, different film stocks, and post-production tricks, Soderbergh gives each story its own individual style. It’s a brilliant move. The film runs slightly over two hours but never feels long. There’s simply too much story to tell for your interest to flag. But it’s also never confusing, a charge I’ve heard leveled at screenwriter Stephen Gaghan’s similar follow-up, Syriana.

It’s fair to say that Traffic hit a nerve with the public that Syriana would never have been able to find. I admire Syriana quite a bit but the labyrinthine machinations of the oil industry are a lot more abstract to most people than the war on drugs. I imagine everyone has a story to tell about how drugs have affected their lives or someone close to them. One of Traffic’s great strengths is its ability to make us see not only our own story reflected back but the bigger picture we never dreamed existed.

If Soderbergh and Gaghan deserve credit for economy of storytelling, the ensemble cast earns most of the kudos for making us believe in these characters. We learn almost nothing about the personal lives of Cheadle and Guzman. But we can fill in the blanks thanks to their effortless chemistry. Zeta-Jones makes a thoroughly believable transformation from idle rich wife to a ruthless Lady Macbeth. And the Oscar-winning Del Toro is a smart, soulful survivor. The moment when he half apologetically confirms to a pair of American tourists that their “stolen car” is a police scam speaks volumes.

Traffic seems to view the war on drugs as futile but surprisingly ends on a note of some hope. The smile on Cheadle’s face as he walks away from Bauer’s home and the contented look Del Toro has as he watches a baseball game suggest that all is not lost. But there is a good chance that this “war” is being fought all wrong.

The world has changed a lot in the years since Traffic debuted. Drug cartels have turned Mexico into a war zone. The director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, or the so-called “drug czar,” is no longer a Cabinet-level position. Yet, Traffic remains relevant. No doubt it will continue to as long as illegal drugs are bought, sold, and abused. Rather than the screeching anti-drug harangue it could have been, Soderbergh made a quietly powerful, thoughtful film examining the problem from multiple perspectives. Whether or not it’s his crowning achievement is debatable. But it’s a high-water mark that brilliantly displays Soderbergh’s ambitions and confidence as a storyteller.

Traffic is available as on Blu-ray and DVD from both The Criterion Collection and Universal.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Nashville

THE CONTENDER: Nashville (1975)

Number of Nominations: 5 – Picture, Supporting Actress (Ronee Blakley & Lily Tomlin), Director (Robert Altman), Original Song (“I’m Easy,” music and lyrics by Keith Carradine)

Number of Wins: 1 (Original Song)

In my Honor To Be Nominated column on Jaws, I wrote that 1975 was the year the Academy got it right. Every single film up for Best Picture that year can make a legitimate claim to greatness. And just look at some of the movies that weren’t up for the big prize: The Man Who Would Be King, The Day Of The Locust, Night Moves, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Yes, 1975 was a very good year.

But if I were forced to pick just one movie from 1975 as my favorite, it would have to be Robert Altman’s Nashville. Don’t get me wrong. I’m crazy about a lot of these other movies, especially Jaws. But Nashville has a scope and ambition few other films have ever come close to replicating. It aims high, weaving 24 characters into a beautiful tapestry that forms a microcosm of America, and hits the mark.

The massive project began innocuously enough. Country-western music was enjoying a surge in popularity and United Artists wanted to make a movie capitalizing on it. They approached Altman and while he wasn’t interested in their idea, he agreed to develop his own country-western movie.

He sent writer Joan Tewkesbury to Nashville to get a feel for the place and its people, instructing her to keep a journal of her visit. The journal became the basis for Tewkesbury’s screenplay. United Artists didn’t know what to make of the sprawling script and passed on the project. So Altman was forced to raise funds independently, not for the first time in his career and far from the last.

When the film was released, it failed to impress one key demographic: the actual people of Nashville. Country stars complained that the movie completely misrepresented them and their city. Not only that, they hated the music, almost all of which was written for the film, often by the actors themselves. In an interview on the DVD, Altman quips that their complaint about the music really meant they were just upset that he hadn’t used any of their tunes.

Altman is probably correct about that. The music feels authentic, from the patriotic bombast of “200 Years” as performed by Henry Gibson’s pompous superstar Haven Hamilton to Keith Carradine’s Oscar-winning “I’m Easy”. The soundtrack is a key element to the film’s success. If the music didn’t work, nothing in the movie would work.

Even though Nashville captures a very specific time and place, it’s eerie how much of the film remains relevant, even prescient today. One of the key threads running through the picture is the organization of a fundraiser for presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker.

Walker is running on the “Replacement Party” and his campaign van appears throughout, broadcasting populist messages about running lawyers out of Congress and changing the national anthem to something ordinary people can sing. By the time the fundraiser begins, you half expect Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and other Tea Party favorites to show up.

Altman ties politics and fame together in another way that would come true a short time later: (Spoiler alert for those of you who haven’t seen this) the assassination of a celebrity. After John Lennon’s murder, Altman was contacted by a reporter from the Washington Post who asked if he felt responsible. Altman turned the tables and suggested the media should feel responsible for not heeding his warning.

Despite its Oscar nominations and critical acclaim, Nashville was not a popular success. Altman finished the ’70s with movies that met with mixed reviews and little box office before embarking on Popeye, the multi-million dollar disaster that effectively ended his Hollywood career for over a decade. Nashville would be Altman’s last trip to the Academy Awards until he was welcomed back into the fold in 1992 with The Player.

In some ways, it’s just as well that Robert Altman’s only Oscar was an honorary one. Even by the New Hollywood standards of the 1970s, his movies were too iconoclastic. Altman often worked within the system but he always did it his own way, refusing to be reigned in by the demands of the studios. Rewarding him for a specific achievement would have been tantamount to giving an unruly child an extra helping of dessert.

Robert Altman left behind an extraordinary body of work, one of the most impressive filmographies of any filmmaker who ever lived. But Nashville remains his masterpiece, a movie that continues to inspire and amaze audiences even today. It’s the closest to a cinematic equivalent of a novel I’ve ever seen. Like a good book, it’s worth revisiting again and again.

Nashville is available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Barry Lyndon

THE CONTENDER: Barry Lyndon (1975)

Number of Nominations: 7 – Picture, Director (Stanley Kubrick), Adapted Screenplay (Stanley Kubrick), Cinematography (John Alcott), Art Direction-Set Direction (Ken Adam, Roy Walker, Vernon Dixon), Original Song Score and/or Adaptation (Leonard Rosenman), Costume Design (Ulla-Britt Soderlund, Milena Canonero)

Number of Wins: 4 (Cinematography, Art Direction-Set Direction, Original Song Score and/or Adaptation & Costume Design)

After the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, Stanley Kubrick turned his complete attention to a mammoth epic based on the life of Napoleon. He spent years researching both the man and the period, going into meticulous detail. In his notes, he modestly claimed it would be “the best movie ever made.”

As the proposed budget for Kubrick’s Napoleon went ever higher, Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo starring Rod Steiger as Napoleon was released. The big-budget epic flopped at the box office, causing Kubrick’s financiers to back out of his project. Kubrick went on to make A Clockwork Orange but Napoleon remained a dream project. The entire story can be found in the beautifully designed book Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made from Taschen.

All that research didn’t go to waste, however. It would inform a different period epic, 1975’s Barry Lyndon. Based on a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, the film follows an Irish cad (played by Ryan O’Neal) as he makes his way in the world by any means necessary. The movie was not an immediate success but today is widely considered one of Kubrick’s most underrated works.

As usual, Kubrick kept the production shrouded in secrecy. Ryan O’Neal seemed an odd choice for a Kubrick project but it wasn’t as if the director had much choice. One of Warner Bros.’ only conditions for bankrolling the project was the casting of an A-list star in the lead and the studio provided Kubrick with a very short list of names. After Robert Redford passed, Kubrick turned to O’Neal, riding high after the blockbuster success of Love Story.

Apart from casting suggestions, the studio was so eager to keep Kubrick in the Warner Bros. family that they let him go and hoped for the best. Principal photography stretched on to a whopping 300 days and the film’s budget eventually hit $11 million. When executives visited Kubrick in London to prepare for the marketing campaign, the filmmaker refused to show them any footage but assured them Oscars were in their future.

As it turned out, Kubrick was right. The film essentially swept the technical awards in 1975, a decision that even the movie’s harshest critics wouldn’t be able to argue with. Barry Lyndon is undeniably gorgeous, featuring some of the most sumptuous set and costume design you’ll see in any period film.

But if anyone deserved their Oscar, it was cinematographer John Alcott. Despite popular belief, it isn’t true that no artificial light was used during filming. However, it is true that the candlelit interiors were shot using only the light provided by the hundreds of candles. Not only did this require the development of special super-fast lenses and experimentation with film stock, it also prohibited much movement on the part of the actors during these scenes. The entire film is simply astonishing to look at. Kubrick more than succeeded at capturing the look of 18th century painters like William Hogarth.

Even though everyone agreed that Barry Lyndon was a remarkable technical achievement, critics and audiences weren’t entirely convinced it succeeded as a movie. The film is slow-moving and the usual arguments that Kubrick was too cold and detached a filmmaker to make a movie about actual human beings were rehashed.

But I’m often surprised how many people fail to see the comedy in Barry Lyndon. Thackeray was first and foremost a satirist and the film succeeds in capturing that, particularly through the droll narration of Michael Hordern. But another element that captures the book’s wit is the oft-criticized performance of Ryan O’Neal.

True, O’Neal is a bit of an empty canvas in the film and his Irish brogue is indifferent at best. But Barry is a character who never quite fits in with his surroundings. He’s an opportunist but not a particularly ambitious or active one. He’s a man in constant need of a patron or a protector. In many ways, O’Neal is the perfect actor for the part. He grows into the role as the film goes along and thanks to him, Barry never seems too weak or too unlikable.

Barry Lyndon has received a critical reappraisal since its release in 1975. In 2005, Time Magazine listed it as one of the 100 best films ever made and Kubrick fans have latched on to it as one of the director’s best works. Barry Lyndon isn’t an easy movie to embrace but it’s impossible not to admire. The first time you see it, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by its technical genius. But the second or third time, you’ll likely get caught up in the strangely charmed life of Barry Lyndon.

Barry Lyndon is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video. It is due to be re-released on both formats October 17, 2017, as part of The Criterion Collection.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Dog Day Afternoon

THE CONTENDER: Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Number of Nominations: 6 – Picture, Actor (Al Pacino), Supporting Actor (Chris Sarandon), Director (Sidney Lumet), Original Screenplay (Frank Pierson), Film Editing (Dede Allen)

Number of Wins: 1 (Original Screenplay)

When Sidney Lumet died back in 2011, there was a sense among the online film community that the filmmaker had never quite received the recognition he deserved. While many of his greatest successes came from the 1970s, he’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as Scorsese, Coppola, and other greats from the decade.

In large part, this is simply because Lumet wasn’t of that generation. He’d been working steadily in the business since the ’50s, making his feature film debut with 12 Angry Men in 1957. Lumet was of the generation that produced such filmmakers as Robert Altman and Blake Edwards, directors who crossed over into features from television. But Lumet was not the fierce iconoclast that Altman was. And while Edwards dabbled in multiple genres early on, he eventually became synonymous with comedy. Lumet could never quite be pigeonholed in that way.

Sidney Lumet was an active filmmaker virtually right up until his death. His final film, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, was released in 2007. His work was never as flashy as many of his contemporaries and there are those who would argue that he wasn’t as consistent. But at his best, Lumet was able to sink his teeth into the meat of a story, grounding his films in reality and getting some of the all-time best performances from the biggest actors in the world.

Dog Day Afternoon re-teamed Lumet with Al Pacino, the star of his 1973 cop drama Serpico. Inspired by a true story, Dog Day Afternoon must have been a risky choice for Pacino. He hadn’t been a leading man for long and now he was playing a bumbling, bisexual criminal robbing a bank to get money for his lover’s sex change operation. It was a risk that paid off handsomely.

The film allowed Pacino to show a lighter, more vulnerable side. One of the great pleasures of the movie is how unexpectedly funny it is. But Lumet refuses to simply turn the movie into a comedy of errors. As the robbery spins out of control, the events are both funny and fraught with tension. Pacino’s nervous energy is both dangerous and touching. It’s a brilliant performance and one I always turn to when I need to be reminded of how great an actor Pacino can be.

The other nominated performance in the film belongs to Chris Sarandon as Pacino’s lover, Leon. Sarandon is undeniably excellent but the movie’s real chemistry is between Pacino and John Cazale as Sonny’s partner-in-crime, Sal. Cazale made just a handful of films before his death in 1978 but made a huge impression in each. Remarkably, Cazale was never nominated for an Oscar, despite his unforgettable work in the first two Godfather films and The Deer Hunter. Not to take anything away from Sarandon, but Cazale surely deserved recognition as well.

On Oscar night, Dog Day Afternoon ran into the unstoppable juggernaut of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Ironically, the movie’s only trophy went to Frank Pierson for his screenplay, a script which had really just provided a structure for the actors to improvise upon. It wasn’t the first time one of Lumet’s films had been an Oscar bridesmaid and it wouldn’t be the last.

Lumet had been nominated for Best Director for his very first film, 12 Angry Men. He’d be nominated in the category twice more, in 1976 for Network and 1982 for The Verdict, but the only award he received was an honorary Oscar in 2005. But over the course of his career, Lumet directed an amazing 17 actors to Oscar-nominated performances, from Katharine Hepburn in Long Day’s Journey Into Night to River Phoenix in Running On Empty.

Today, Dog Day Afternoon is remembered as one of the undisputed classics of the 1970s. Sidney Lumet left behind a rich film legacy ripe for rediscovery, from acknowledged masterworks like Network to underrated gems like Prince Of The City. His work wasn’t consistently brilliant but it was rarely less than interesting. Lumet is a filmmaker who truly earned his honorary Oscar, a well-deserved tribute to a director who had been overlooked for too long.

Dog Day Afternoon is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video. Also available and highly recommended is Sidney Lumet’s 1996 memoir, Making Movies.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Jaws

THE CONTENDER: Jaws (1975)

Number of Nominations: 4 – Picture, Sound (Robert L. Hoyt, Roger Heman, Earl Madery & John Carter), Original Score (John Williams), Film Editing (Verna Fields)

Number of Wins: 3 (Sound, Original Score & Film Editing)

If you look over all the films that have ever been nominated for Best Picture, you’ll find at least one common thread. Every year, there’s at least one movie whose reputation has faded since its release, that’s been virtually forgotten, or simply wasn’t very good to begin with. Every year, that is, except one: 1975.

That year’s winner, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, had to compete against some of the most acclaimed films and filmmakers of the 1970s: Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, Robert Altman’s Nashville, and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Whether or not Cuckoo’s Nest deserved to win is another debate. But if your knee-jerk response is of course it didn’t, you probably haven’t seen Cuckoo’s Nest recently.

Somehow, the Academy got it right in 1975. Since every one of these films is worthy of attention, I thought I’d spend the next four installments of An Honor To Be Nominated looking at each one. And with summer in full swing, it seems appropriate to kick things off with the movie that changed summer blockbusters forever, Jaws.

Jaws was never supposed to be an Oscar nominated film. In fact, during the tumultuous making of the movie, many doubted it would even be watchable. Steven Spielberg was just in his late 20s when he was hired to direct the film. He came from television, where he’d helmed episodes of Night Gallery and Columbo as well as the acclaimed TV-movie Duel. His only theatrical film, the Goldie Hawn vehicle The Sugarland Express, had been positively received by critics but hadn’t exactly set the box office on fire.

The screenplay for Jaws was in a constant state of flux, even during shooting. Peter Benchley, the author of the original novel, bowed out early on. Most of the shooting script was eventually written by Carl Gottlieb (who also appears in the film as the editor of the local newspaper) and John Milius, who did not receive screen credit for his work.

Considering the electricity generated by the three leads, it’s surprising to realize that not one of the actors was the production’s first choice. Spielberg originally offered the role of Chief Brody to Robert Duvall, who passed on the project. Roy Scheider was interested but Spielberg had to be persuaded that he was right for the part. For Hooper, both Jon Voight and Jeff Bridges were considered. Richard Dreyfuss initially rejected the part but eventually changed his mind. Quint is today considered Robert Shaw’s most iconic role but Spielberg first pursued Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden for the part.

The production on Martha’s Vineyard went notoriously awry. The expensive mechanical sharks, dubbed “Bruce” by the crew, steadfastly refused to do what they were supposed to do. It proved to be a blessing in disguise, as Spielberg honed the script and rethought how to tell the story while waiting for the sharks to work. Eventually, the movie went over-budget and 100 days over schedule. By the time principal photography was over, Spielberg was convinced his career was finished before it had even begun.

But when Jaws was released on June 20, 1975, it changed Hollywood forever. Until then, most films were given a platform release, slowly expanding into different markets and allowing word of mouth to build. Jaws opened wide, so to speak, following a previously unheard of promotional blitz. It became a nationwide phenomenon, becoming the first film in history to make over $100 million in domestic box office.

Despite its popular success and critical acclaim, Jaws was hardly a shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination. The Academy has never given genres like horror and science fiction much respect. The Exorcist had managed to finagle a Best Picture nomination a couple years earlier but it was a more serious-minded type of horror film. Jaws was considered a straight-up popcorn movie that just happened to catch on.

That didn’t stop Steven Spielberg from feeling bitterly disappointed when the nominations were announced and he discovered that while his movie was up for the big prize, he himself was not. While Kubrick, Lumet, Altman, and Milos Forman were all nominated for Best Director, the Academy decided to honor Federico Fellini for his work on Amarcord instead of the new kid. Even so, Jaws won three of the four categories it was up for and Spielberg himself would receive his first Best Director nomination just two years later for Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

Over 35 years later, Jaws remains one of the few films that’s as good today as it was at the time of its release. Almost all of this is due to the fact that things did not go as planned. Spielberg was forced to show his shark as little as possible due to the malfunctioning effects, making the impact of the shark’s on-screen appearances all the more potent.

But what really makes the film special is the work of Scheider, Dreyfuss, and Shaw. Spielberg excels at telling stories of ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances and Jaws may be his crowning achievement in this realm. These three characters are vivid, well-rounded, and thoroughly believable. The chemistry between them is palpable. These three actors sell the story much more effectively than any mechanical shark ever could.

It’s little wonder that Jaws remains a touchstone film for movie fans of my generation. It’s scary, funny, breathlessly exciting, and entirely relatable. Despite almost four decades of pop culture ubiquity, including countless parodies and the transformation of John Williams’ Oscar-winning score from effective film music to iconic audio shorthand, it has yet to lose its power. Most movies that enter our pop culture subconscious become overly familiar. Jaws is somehow immune to that. Every time someone watches it for the first time, someone new thinks twice about going back in the water.

Jaws is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.