An Honor To Be Nominated: A Cry In The Dark

THE CONTENDER: A Cry In The Dark (1988)

Number of Nominations: 1 – Actress in a Leading Role (Meryl Streep)

Number of Wins: 0

As this column continues to wind its way through 90+ years of Oscar-nominated movies, we’re going to be seeing a lot of Meryl Streep. A lot. She’s been nominated for 21 Academy Awards, more than any other performer in film history. And assuming she remains healthy and doesn’t suddenly forget how to act for some reason, it’s reasonable to assume she’ll get a few more.

Because she’s such a fixture at the Dolby Theatre (and, prior to that, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and Shrine Auditorium), it’s easy to take her work for granted. There have been occasions when her name has been read as a nominee and you can sense a sort of collective eye-roll in the room. It’s as if we all assume that it’s part of her contract whenever she signs on to a new project. As long as she shows up to work every day, she’ll get a nomination.

You can trace the origins of Streep Fatigue back to her 8th nomination, 1988’s A Cry In The Dark (known in its native Australia as Evil Angels). At the age of 39, she was already an Oscar favorite, having won twice. Certainly no one begrudged her any of those honors, but her nomination for the previous year’s Ironweed was the first time she (and co-star Jack Nicholson) was singled out for elevating a movie that was not unanimously praised. A Cry In The Dark would mark the first time (although not the last) that Meryl Streep would be the sole nominee representing her film.

Even at the time, A Cry In The Dark wasn’t a particularly popular movie. Today, it’s best remembered (when it’s remembered at all) for the episode of Seinfeld when Elaine, trapped at a hellish party, tells an annoying woman that “maybe the dingo ate your baby”. Even there, based on comments I’ve seen online, a surprisingly large number of people don’t realize that’s a deep-cut reference to a movie. They seem to think it’s just a non-sequitur.

None of this is to suggest that A Cry In The Dark isn’t a good movie. In fact, it’s an unusual and quite gripping movie, ably directed by Fred Schepisi. Based on a true story, Streep stars as Lindy Chamberlain, alongside Sam Neill as her husband, Richard. While on holiday at Ayers Rock, the Chamberlains’ nine-week-old daughter, Azaria, disappears, seemingly abducted by a dingo, although only Lindy actually saw the animal. Hope quickly fades that the girl will be found alive, so the police and coroner’s office begin searching for evidence to establish the cause of death. The case turns into a national cause célèbre, with members of the press tripping over each other to run wildly speculative stories and everything from Lindy’s aloof exterior to the Chamberlains’ Seventh-day Adventist religious beliefs scrutinized and judged in the court of public opinion.

Schepisi makes a number of interesting choices in his unfolding of the tale. The movie starts out somewhat languidly, taking its time to get to know not just the characters and their lives but also the surrounding environment and people. Australia itself is very much a character in the film. Within 15 minutes, we have a very clear sense of the place and its people.

Events continue to unfold leisurely through the initial search for Azaria and the Chamberlains’ return home. It isn’t until the press enters the picture that Schepisi picks up the pace. Suddenly, things start happening very quickly. The passage of time is barely remarked upon, even as the movie starts jumping ahead months at a time with only subtle visual cues like Streep’s changing hairstyle to cue us in. We see the rumor mill at work through a series of quick check-ins with random Australians discussing the case on the street, at work, and at dinner parties. They’re almost never the same people twice. These sequences are a little bit longer and meatier than your average montage but still more rapid-fire than the surrounding scenes. On occasion, Schepisi will even cut to or away from these brief scenes in mid-sentence, adding to the sense of dislocation.

Fred Schepisi came up through the so-called “golden age” of Australian cinema, alongside such figures as George Miller, Peter Weir and Gillian Armstrong. But he never quite established his own identity as a filmmaker, remaining something of a journeyman throughout his career. Most of his films are good or very good, including Barbarosa, The Russia House, Six Degrees Of Separation and the HBO miniseries Empire Falls. But even when his films flirt with greatness, as in Steve Martin’s Cyrano update Roxanne, it’s because Schepisi is smart enough to get out of the way and let those elements really shine. Honestly, there’s something very refreshing about a filmmaker who puts himself in service to the story and not the other way around.

With A Cry In The Dark, Schepisi knows exactly how he wants to tell this particular story. It’s easy to imagine a version of this movie that casts doubt on Lindy Chamberlain’s explanation of events. But Schepisi presents everything in such a matter-of-fact way that we never doubt her for a second. We may, in hindsight, second-guess some of her later decisions, such as making herself available for interviews, especially when she’s so unbending in the way she presents herself publically. But we never think she’s guilty of murder.

Streep is outstanding in a complex role that somehow manages to be both sympathetic and unsympathetic at once. At the time, Streep’s reputation as the Queen of All Accents somewhat overshadowed the rest of what she accomplishes with the role (although, for the record, her Australian accent is impeccable). It’s impossible not to feel for a woman who has lost a child. But Lindy’s strict religious beliefs seem to make her recover far more quickly than most. For many people in the audience, and certainly for most Australians at the time, this makes her seem unfeeling. But Streep manages to open a window that allows us to see her real emotions. It’s a remarkable performance.

Sam Neill, a reliable and criminally undervalued actor who makes every performance seem effortless, is more than up to the challenge of playing opposite Streep. If his role hadn’t been quite so underwritten, he likely would have received an Oscar nod of his own (as of this writing, Neill has yet to receive a single nomination). But the script (co-written by Schepisi and Robert Caswell) isn’t nearly as concerned with Richard. He remains a bit of a cipher, never questioning his wife’s story and mostly just watching in disbelief as events happen around him. Neill gets a few good moments and he makes the most of them but everyone involved seems to agree that it’s Meryl Streep’s show.

I think it’s fair to say that Meryl Streep was considered the longshot at the 1989 ceremony. Her competition included Jodie Foster (who won for The Accused), Sigourney Weaver (a double nominee that year in both the Leading and Supporting categories), ingénue Melanie Griffith, and Glenn Close, probably Streep’s closest peer and contemporary. Up against that lineup, Streep’s work in a dark, kind of weird Australian docudrama never stood a chance. But don’t feel too badly for her. She won plenty of other accolades for this role, including Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival, and we’d be seeing plenty more of her at the Oscars soon enough.

A Cry In The Dark is available on DVD and Digital from Warner Home Video.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Viva Villa!

THE CONTENDER: Viva Villa! (1934)

Number of Nominations: 4 – Best Picture; Writing (Adaptation) (Ben Hecht); Sound Recording (Douglas Shearer); Assistant Director (John Waters)

Number of Wins: 1 – Assistant Director

Viva Villa! has tumbled into obscurity since its release in 1934. If you Google “Viva Villa” today, the first results to pop up are likely going to be for a chain of Taquerias or some other Mexican restaurant of the same name. But at the time, it was a sizable box office hit and wound up nominated for multiple Oscars including Best Picture. It even won one for Best Assistant Director John Waters (needless to say, a different John Waters than the one you’re probably thinking of). Bet you didn’t even know Best Assistant Director used to be a category, did you? I know I didn’t.

This was not Mr. Waters’ first crack at this award. He’d been nominated the previous year at the 6th Academy Awards, the first year for this short-lived category. Like a lot of categories in the early years of the Oscars, it seems as though there was a lot of figuring this thing out as they went along. That first year, Best Assistant Director appears almost like an Employee of the Month category. There were six winners and no fewer than 17 nominees, none of whom were recognized for a specific film. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that the “nominees” were simply an all-inclusive list of every A.D. in Hollywood at the time.

For his work on Viva Villa!, if Waters assisted everybody who had a hand in directing the thing, I’d say he earned his Oscar. Like most studio system films, this was producer David O. Selznick’s vision more than the director’s. Jack Conway ended up with screen credit but William Wellman and Howard Hawks each did uncredited work as well. It comes as no surprise that the resulting film is extremely episodic and about as authentically Mexican as a Doritos® Cheesy Gordita Crunch from Taco Bell. But the movie is undeniably entertaining and that goes a long way.

Wallace Beery, sounding more like Chico Marx than a Mexican Revolutionary, stars as Pancho Villa. Beery was a huge star in the 30s thanks to movies like The Champ and The Big House but odds are today most people know him, if at all, only as a punchline in the Coens’ Barton Fink. (“Wallace Beery! Wrestling picture! What do you need, a road map?”) Beery is rarely mentioned in the same breath as other legendary stars of the 30s these days but after watching some of his most enduring work, it’s easy to see why he was such a popular personality. He’s a boisterous, larger-than-life character, eager to please and oddly likable even when he’s boasting about his rape-and-murder-filled exploits.

Part of this is due to the fact that most of the violence and mayhem takes place off-screen. The storyteller’s mantra may be “show, don’t tell” but Viva Villa! never uses imagery when dozens of words can be employed instead. When we do so violence on-screen, it usually involves whips, first in the opening scene where young Pancho sees his father killed after 100 lashes. The filmmakers’ whip fetish comes back into play later when an incensed adult Pancho tries to teach Spanish aristocrat Teresa (Fay Wray) a thing or two about real suffering. The scene is shot in silhouette (presumably by the great James Wong Howe, one of two credited cinematographers). The moody camerawork and Wray’s reactions give the whole thing a distinct S&M quality. Even during all this, Pancho Villa comes across as a big, friendly, loyal, kinda dumb dog, ironic considering his father dies protesting that he is a man, not a dog.

Structurally, Viva Villa! bears an unmistakable similarity to Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata!, released almost 20 years later. Personally, I preferred Viva Villa! to Kazan’s humorless slog of a movie. Neither movie can lay much claim to historical accuracy and suffers from casting very American actors in very Hispanic roles (though, granted, Kazan’s movie does have Anthony Quinn’s Oscar-winning performance going for it). But Beery as Villa at least seems to be having fun. You can’t say the same about Marlon Brando as Zapata. Brando always seems on the verge of realizing he’s made a mistake and walking off set.

A dozen movies were nominated for Best Picture in 1934 and, believe it or not, three of them still remain unaccounted for on DVD: the opulent biopic House Of Rothschild, the musical One Night Of Love, and The White Parade, a tribute to young nurses. I can’t say how Viva Villa! stacks up next to these rarities but I don’t think anyone would argue that it deserved to triumph over the year’s winner, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. If nothing else, Viva Villa! serves as a reminder of the studio system’s remarkable capacity for making effective entertainment out of the most chaotic and troubled productions. It’s no classic but the fact that it’s even coherent is something of an achievement. And odds are, most of the credit for that belongs to Academy Award winner John Waters.

Viva Villa! is available on MOD DVD from the Warner Archive Collection.

An Honor To Be Nominated: 10

THE CONTENDER: 10 (1979)

Number of Nominations: 2 – Original Score (Henry Mancini); Original Song (“Song from 10 (It’s Easy To Say)”, music by Henry Mancini, lyrics by Robert Wells)

Number of Wins: 0

Throughout film history, there have been a handful of brand-name filmmakers. These are directors who routinely received an ownership credit above the title and whose names meant something to audiences. You immediately had a pretty good idea of what sort of movie to expect when you saw these names. Alfred Hitchcock. Stanley Kubrick. Federico Fellini. John Carpenter. And, from the mid-1970s to the early 90s, Blake Edwards.

The possessory credit didn’t start appearing on posters for Edwards’ movies until 1975’s The Return Of The Pink Panther. Prior to that, Edwards had dabbled in a variety of genres, from the exquisite cool jazz noir of TV’s Peter Gunn to the issue-oriented drama of Days Of Wine And Roses to the throwback western Wild Rovers. But he had always excelled in comedy, whether it was the bittersweet variety of Breakfast At Tiffany’s or his broad, slapstick collaborations with Peter Sellers. So, from 1975 on, he focused almost exclusively on that genre, occasionally with ill-advised attempts to keep the Pink Panther franchise going but also with semi-autobiographical dramedies like That’s Life!, his remake of The Man Who Loved Women, and 10.

10 was a bona fide cultural phenomenon in its day. It was the 7th highest-grossing film of 1979, turned Dudley Moore into a Hollywood leading man, and made Bo Derek (and her culturally appropriating cornrow hairstyle) an internationally recognized celebrity. But, like a lot of Edwards’ movies, it has not had a lasting impact.

At first glance, one might assume this is simply because the movie hasn’t aged well. After all, Edwards’ filmography is dotted with elements that today would be considered problematic at best. If you’ve got a problem with white actors tackling other ethnicities, you’re not gonna have a good time with Blake Edwards. So if you don’t know anything about 10 other than what you see on the DVD case, it’s not unreasonable to expect that the movie’s depiction of sexual politics and feminism will be impossibly dated by 2019 standards.

Perhaps surprisingly, that’s not actually the case. Yes, this is a movie about a rich, straight, white man bumbling his way through a mid-life crisis. In fact, if Dudley Moore’s character is meant to be Edwards’ surrogate, it’s fair to assume there was more than a little wish fulfillment going on. George Webber is almost impossibly successful. He’s an internationally famous songwriter, a playwright, and the winner of 4 Academy Awards…all by the age of 42.

Despite his success, he still struggles with depression, drinks too much, argues with both his on-again/off-again girlfriend/muse Samantha Taylor (played by Edwards’ own wife, Julie Andrews) and his songwriting partner Hugh (Robert Webber), and is terrified by the specter of his own mortality. He lives vicariously through his neighbor’s swinging lifestyle, spying on him and his neverending parade of nude women through a telescope. (Incidentally, that neighbor is played by Return Of The Living Dead‘s Don Calfa, sporting a gloriously long head of hippie hair.)

George thinks he’s found the answer to his dissatisfaction when he randomly sees Bo Derek in the car next to his at a traffic stop. She is, as George later puts it, “a vision”, on her way to be married to sentient Ken doll and future Flash Gordon Sam J. Jones. Unable to get her out of his head, George finds out that her name is Jenny and eventually tracks her down to Mexico, where the newlyweds are honeymooning.

So yeah, he essentially turns into a bit of a stalker but no, none of this behavior comes across as creepy. Part of this is because Edwards turns this stretch of the film into a showcase for some of his broadest physical comedy. Every time George gets a little closer to his dream girl, he pays for it in pain or some other humiliation. Dudley Moore was an expert physical comedian and Blake Edwards was second to none at filming bits like these.

But Moore’s performance also helps keep our sympathies from turning against George. Even when his judgment isn’t clouded by booze and painkillers (which isn’t often), it’s clear that he’s going after this woman blindly with absolutely no idea what he’s going to do if or when he finds her. He repeatedly tries reaching out to Sam, desperately wanting her to “save him” from himself. But the movie is smart enough to recognize that isn’t her job. George pushes her too far and Sam rightly tells him to piss off. If they’re going to have a future together, it’s going to take work.

Eventually, George and Jenny do end up alone together, after a somewhat convoluted rescue (involving a shark, of course, since Jaws was still fresh in everyone’s mind) lands Jenny’s husband in the hospital. But here too, the reality of the situation fails to live up to George’s fantasy. He has idealized her so much that he can’t accept the fact that an encounter that’s momentous to him is really no big deal to her. He loses respect for her in that moment but significantly, he also loses a lot of respect for himself as he recognizes his own hypocrisy. If someone were to remake 10 today (note to filmmakers: please don’t), I’m sure this sequence would be handled much differently. But these are equally valid character choices, especially for 1979 but even today. George’s dream girl isn’t just a blank slate. She has her own wants, desires, thoughts and moral compass. And, when he really starts to think about it, George realizes they don’t align with his own.

Odds are that 10 was too big a commercial hit to register much with Oscar voters. It was nominated for five Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture (Comedy or Musical) and the ever-popular Best New Star of the Year (you know, the category that was discontinued shortly after Pia Zadora won it…Bo Derek lost to Bette Midler, probably a wise choice by the Foreign Press). But at the Academy Awards, the best 10 could muster was a pair of music nominations.

Now, I’m never going to say a bad word against Henry Mancini. He is one of the all-time great composers for film and television with more awards and nominations than most people have had hot dinners. As far as I’m concerned, he’s earned them all. But, let me just suggest that perhaps his work on 10 is not his most memorable. There is a piece of music from 10 that everyone who’s seen the movie remembers. That would be Ravel’s Boléro. Boléro became so associated with the film that, a few years later, Bo Derek would attempt to ride its coattails yet again by making a movie CALLED Bolero (and if you’re a connoisseur of bad cinema, you should definitely see it…it’s jaw-droppingly terrible). But Mancini’s actual score is unobtrusive and altogether forgettable.

As for the song, nobody’s going to argue that music wasn’t an important part of the film. It’s about a songwriter, after all, and Mancini contributed a few original tunes, including the hilarious, intentionally bad “I Have An Ear For Love”. But when Jenny describes George’s work as “elevator music”, it’s hard to disagree. The nominated song, “It’s Easy To Say”, is performed by Moore and Andrews, both in the film and over the end credits. At one point, Moore plays an extended instrumental version of it on the piano that’s better than the later vocal rendition. Moore was an excellent pianist and he pours a lot of character into his performance of the song. But the final version is exactly the kind of nothing song that the Academy uses to pad out the category in weak years.

In the end, 10 won neither award. Original Score went to Georges Delerue’s A Little Romance, a pleasant enough choice but a far cry from my favorite Delerue score. Of the nominated films, I’d likely cast my vote for Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In the original song category, “It’s Easy To Say” lost out to an even more unlikely choice: “It Goes Like It Goes” from Norma Rae. In retrospect, the obvious winner should have been “The Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet Movie. But let’s face it. The actual “best original song” from a motion picture in 1979 wasn’t even nominated. That would be “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” from Monty Python’s Life Of Brian. I’d put that up against “It’s Easy To Say” any day of the week.

10 is available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital from Warner Home Video.

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: 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: The Color Purple

THE CONTENDER: The Color Purple (1985)

Number of Nominations: 11 – Picture, Actress (Whoopi Goldberg), Supporting Actress (Margaret Avery & Oprah Winfrey), Adapted Screenplay (Menno Meyjes), Cinematography (Allan Daviau), Art Direction/Set Direction (J. Michael Riva & Linda De Scenna), Original Song (“Miss Celie’s Blues (Sister),” music by Quincy Jones & Rod Temperton, lyrics by Jones, Temperton & Lionel Richie), Original Score (Quincy Jones & a host of others), Costume Design (Aggie Guerard Rodgers), Makeup (Ken Chase)

Number of Wins: Zilch

In 2010, Tyler Perry found himself the center of controversy yet again, this time over his film For Colored Girls. A number of people suggested Perry, best known for donning wig and dress to perform a caricature of a sassy black woman, might not be qualified to adapt Ntozake Shange’s 1975 play for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, a landmark work of African-American feminist theatre. So Perry did what any filmmaker would do in that situation: he went on TV to get Oprah’s blessing. It seemed to work. The controversy died down, the movie opened to Perry’s usual mixture of faint praise and scathing notices, and the whole affair was forgotten in a matter of days.

If anyone could sympathize with Perry, it’s Steven Spielberg. In 1985, he was in a similar spot over his adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple. But while there was certainly concern over whether or not a nice white Jewish boy from Southern California could take on this story, there were also more general questions raised about his ability as a filmmaker. No one doubted his skill at crafting thrilling boys’ adventure stories featuring sharks, UFOs, and Nazi-fighting archeologists. But this movie was actually supposed to be… you know, about something. Was he up to the challenge?

Spielberg also had Oprah in his corner but not as the Queen of All Media she would become. At this point, her sphere of influence only went as far as the greater Chicago area, which is where co-producer Quincy Jones saw her and persuaded Spielberg to give her a shot. It was a smart move. She really is terrific in the movie. Too bad about the TV thing. She could have been a first-class character actress. The movie helped her, too. Oprah’s talk show star was already on the rise but that Oscar nomination certainly didn’t hurt when it went into national syndication in 1986.

When the movie was finally released, it was predictably met with protests from organizations such as the NAACP, who complained about perceived stereotypes as well as Spielberg’s involvement. But when the Oscar nominations were announced, two movies dominated: Out Of Africa and The Color Purple. There was one big omission, however. Spielberg himself was left out of the best director race.

Spielberg was never shy about his desire to win an Oscar. Publicly, he kept quiet, going off on vacation after the nominations were announced but the snub must have hurt. When the big day finally arrived, The Color Purple won none of the categories it was eligible for. By this time, of course, the film was a box office success, so the NAACP, who had been so critical earlier, now focused their wrath on the Academy, calling the shut-out “a slap in the face.”

Did the Academy get it wrong? Personally, I think The Color Purple is a better film than that year’s winner, Out Of Africa. But it still didn’t necessarily deserve to win. (For the record, my own choice for the best picture of 1985, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, wasn’t even nominated in the category.) Spielberg has never been a particularly subtle filmmaker. His tendency to go big when a quieter moment might be more powerful occasionally works against the film, especially when it comes to moments of comic relief. There’s a recurring gag with Harpo falling through a roof he’s trying to repair that’s especially cartoonish and out of place. Still, Spielberg and his cast make it easy to engage emotionally with these characters. If you do that, it’s possible to overlook the film’s weaker, schmaltzier elements.

The Color Purple is rarely mentioned in current discussions of Spielberg’s work. It’s been overshadowed both by the long reach of his early classics and later films that did win, such as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, but it remains a key film in his career. Spielberg has referred to it as his first mature film, a characterization I don’t necessarily agree with. Many of his earlier films have deeply moving and even profound moments, especially Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, but the success of The Color Purple gave Spielberg the confidence to move beyond what most people consider popcorn movies, even if he didn’t have a little gold statue to prove it.

The Color Purple is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video.