Armchair Oscars – 1970

Best Picture

Patton (Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner)
The Nominees: Airport, Five Easy Pieces, Love Story, MASH

MASH (Directed by Robert Altman)
My Nominees: 
Five Easy Pieces (Bob Raefelson), Women in Love (Ken Russell), I Never Sang For My Father (Gilbert Cates), Little Big Man (Arthur Penn), Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh), Brewster McCloud (Robert Altman), The Boys in the Band (William Friedkin), Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini (Vittorio de Sica)


I recently read an account of Franklin J. Shaffner’s Patton that, kept referring to the film as an “anti-war” epic. I had to see for myself so I revisited the film looking for its possible anti-war stance. I didn’t see that. What I saw was a movie that glorified the ethics of war from the point of view of a man who seemingly had little perspective for anything else. I don’t mean that as a fault (this is a biography) but to call it an anti-war film is to miss the point.

I’ve seen Patton many times over the years and I’ve always been impressed by the sheer scope of the film. Watching it again recently I realized that most of that comes from George C. Scott’s volcanic performance. I also thought that if you took him out of the film, there doesn’t seem to be very much left. Patton is a very thinly written movie propped up by one of the most unforgettable performances in movie history.

For my choice for Best Picture, I don’t have to wonder about its agenda. MASH is an anti-war, anti-establishment statement from one end to the other. This was 1970, when the Vietnam War was still burning. Robert Altman would create a film that was a million miles from the cooperation between the government and the Hollywood film industry during World War II.

The opening text of MASH informs us that we are in Korea, we correctly assume sometime in the early days of the war. Altman didn’t want it that way; he wanted all references to the Korean War removed so that MASH would seem more universal and we could more effectively emphasize the message that all wars look the same – all wars are fought for the same reasons, that the blood is always the same color and that the only difference between one war and another are the uniforms. Without that text, most audiences would have assumed that this was a comedy about Vietnam.

No matter what war the film covered, the time was right for MASH, a film that affirmed the kind of anti-establishment sentiments begun with Easy Rider and that would continue for the next two decades. It is difficult to imagine this film in different hands because Robert Altman seemed to be tailor made to direct it. He had been working in television and small feature films but hadn’t yet had his breakthrough. His approach was unique, a multi-layered pallet populated by at least two dozen characters who wander in and out of the frame like players in a home movie. He allowed characters to talk over one another, sometimes with conversations happening in the foreground and the background and off to the side to give the film’s canvas a sense of depth. Altman has never been interested in a singular plot and scenes often feel disconnected which gives the characters more room to move and more room to speak freely.  They aren’t locked into a chess game plot that moves them from one story element to another.

This was unheard of from a Hollywood film so it was Altman’s good fortune that 20th Century Fox’s studio heads had their attention focused on two other epic war projects – Patton and Tora! Tora! Tora! – so they didn’t make time to get in the way of the production. Altman said that he learned that the way to keep the suits off of the set was to keep things on schedule and under budget. I don’t want to imagine MASH (or any of Altman’s films) with studio tinkering.

I can’t imagine this film as a standard comedy. Without the manic pacing, or the editing the movie would have seemed stale. The craziness comes from Altman’s ability to take the material and throw out all convictions. There are moments when the word “absurd” seems to be an understatement. How else do you tell the story of a bunch of surgeons in a MASH unit who are knee deep in blood, guts and body parts who balance those horrors with martinis and practical jokes?

For the characters, creative casting is the key. Hawkeye and Trapper John (Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould) don’t need to be played as well-established characters but must seem like they’ve just dropped in, like two wise-acres who just happen to have found their way in front of the camera. They are a mixture of profane attitudes and miraculous surgical skills. Their hands work to retrieve young boys from the jaws of death while they mumble wisecracks back and forth. If you see MASH from a literal point of view, it seems unbearably cruel. How could surgeons hack and sew through an assembly line of wounded teenagers and seem not to care? I think all of the antics are a defense because if you suffer emotional turmoil over patching a man’s intestines together day after day without some frivolity, you’re likely to end up in the funny farm.

We meet the doctors as lighthearted but smart men who haven’t a bit of use for their surroundings nor for those who perpetrate the mad notion of making war in order to make peace. Altman trusts his audience, he knows that this was not a war but a police action (which is basically a war minus the paperwork). They aren’t sure why they’re there, nor do they seem to care, but they know their jobs. They pull pranks, play golf, sip martinis and manage to patch together the brutal realities of what is happening three miles away.

Within the frame of the movie, the enemy isn’t North Korea or Mao’s red China but army brass who affirm this madness with a stolid military indifference. For this, we are given Major Margaret O’Houlahan (Sally Kellerman), a dim-bulbed major who (the movie suggests) has gotten her promotion through means other than hard work. Then there is Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), a humorless religious zealot who’s cruelty of the junior staff leads Hawkeye and Trapper to arrange for his vacation to the laughing academy.

There has never been a war movie before or since that shifted it’s focus so brilliantly. Altman takes advantage of the fact that military surgeons don’t live by army regimen and are free to break the rules at will. They take even the most rudimentary circumstance and turn it on it’s ear. Take for example the film’s best scene, in which “Painless Pole” Waldowski (John Shuck), the camp dentist whose impotence has led him to believe that his latent homosexuality has flowered (nevermind the three girlfriends he’s engaged to back home). Hawkeye and Trapper respect his desire to want to kill himself and even arrange it for him in a ceremony in which he is given a placebo that puts him into a deep sleep. He wakes to sex with one of the nurses and the next morning he’s hale and hearty. The scene is the picture of sacrilege when the group gathers around the table in a pose reminiscent of the last supper. They even have the nerve to ask the camp priest to give him absolution.

There are a dozen scenes like that, scenes of comic invention within a setting that should be pain and agony.  This was very much a movie of it’s time. It echoed the madness of the war and the anti-war movement and somehow it still seems to work. The attitudes about war bourne out of the Vietnam war still echo today and that makes MASH not just comedy but commentary.

Best Actor

George C. Scott (Patton)
The Nominees: Melvyn Douglas (I Never Sang For My Father), James Earl Jones (The Great White Hope), Jack Nicholson (Five Easy Pieces), Ryan O’Neal (Love Story)

Jack Nicholson (Five Easy Pieces)
My Nominees:
Dustin Hoffman (Little Big Man), Robert Mitchum (Ryan’s Daughter), George C. Scott (Patton)


“The Academy Awards ceremonies are a two-hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons.”

So said George C. Scott upon his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor. With this statement, no one was actually sure if Scott would win the Oscar for Best Actor of 1970. After being nominated for his brilliant, ferocious performance as the blustery George S. Patton II, he declined his nomination, feeling that it was unfair for actors to compete with one another. He announced that he would be home Oscar night watching the hockey game. When Goldie Hawn announced his name, there was a roar from the crowd but Scott was nowhere to be found.

Despite his objections the academy would keep Scott’s Oscar available to him for the rest of his life, just in case he changed his mind. Had he not made such a stink over his nomination, his win for Best Actor would have seemed inevitable.

The image of George C. Scott as Patton, standing in front of an enormous American Flag, dressed like an over-decorated potentate, spouting “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser” are as much a part of American film as Rosebud, the ruby slippers, the lightsaber, “As Time Goes By” and HAL 9000, yet Scott is so much of Patton that we tend to forget that a full-fledged movie exists around him. I cannot say that he didn’t deserve the Oscar, nor can I take away his Oscar because he refused his nomination when I am choosing Marlon Brando two years later for an Oscar he turned down.

Scott gave his best performance in Patton, but my choice is Jack Nicholson who, in 1970, gave his best performance in Five Easy Pieces. After ten years of earning his dues in B-pictures like Little Shop of Horrors and Hell’s Angels on Wheels and on television with guest spots on “Dr. Kildaire,” “Sea Hunt,” and “The Andy Griffith Show,” Nicholson had his breakthrough role as the drunken Harvard-educated lawyer George Hansen in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider. It would prove what a wonderful presence he was in the movies – who can forget him in that gold football helmet on the back of that chopper? – but Five Easy Pieces would prove what an effective actor he could be.

He plays Robert Eroica Dupea, Bobby for short, who works on an oil rig in California. He exists in a blue-collar town, drinking, bowling, screwing around. He has a girlfriend, Raynette (Karen Black), who drives him up a wall with constant chatter and a strange obsession with Tammy Wynette. We assume that we know him, but the best surprise from Five Easy Pieces is that we come to understand that neither we nor his friends really know him at all.

Bobby comes from a wealthy family, all with musical abilities (his middle name comes from Beethoven’s Third Symphony). He plays the piano with a certain amount of skill, but it was never good enough for his father. We learn that years ago he alienated himself from his family. That alienation has made him a ball of frustration. He doesn’t relate to anyone, nor does anyone relate to him, not at work, not at the bowling alley and certainly not to the family members he left behind. He stands away from everyone else, he hides what is in his mind and in his heart. He lives a very lonely existence from which it seems there is no exit.

His relationship with Raynette is hardly a relationship at all. She’s sweet, gorgeous, fusses over her appearance and obsessively listens to Tammy Wynette songs like “Stand By Your Man”, which becomes a metaphor for her devotion to Bobby. She needs Bobby far more than he needs her and his approach to her is to consistently put her down. He keeps her in his life, it seems, to have someone over which to feel superior. He doesn’t want to commit to Raynette and communicates so little with her that he finds out she’s pregnant from a co-worker. Non-committal, he has sex with another woman, Betty (Sally Struthers) – not out of love but just to prove to himself that he’s not in love with her.

What we sense from Bobby is a feeling of pent up frustration. There is hardly a moment when he feels relaxed or at ease. We see in his eyes that he is always thinking about something else. The saddest thing is that here is a man barely into his thirties, already having regrets. No one really knows him. When his buddy Elton, from work, talks to him about the importance of family, Bobby unloads “It’s ridiculous. I’m sitting here listening to some cracker asshole, lives in a trailer park, compare his life to mine.” At this point, we understand that we know nothing about him, and it opens the film’s unexpected second half.

The second half of Five Easy Pieces is almost alien from the first. Bobby is informed that he has to come back home because his father has had a stroke. He drives from California up to his family’s home on the coast of Washington. He drags Raynette along with him and leaves her in the motel while he goes to visit. He hasn’t seen his father or the rest of his family in some time. We sense that from the moment he walks in the door.

We meet his brother Carl (Ralph Waite, who was soon to be the patriarch of “The Waltons”), who had an accident and can no longer play the violin. We meet his sister Partita (Lois Smith), who is in love with Spicer (John Ryan), her father’s male nurse. We meet Catherine (Susan Anspach), who is Carl’s girlfriend as well as his student. And in the center is Nicholas, their father whose stroke has rendered him catatonic.

Bobby doesn’t seem to belong amid this bunch any more than he fits in with the folks back home. He smiles a frustrated smile that hides a great deal. Raynette shows up in a cab and is polite to the family and the family seems to like her. Bobby doesn’t really want her there but he explodes on a visiting intellectual snob who tries to put her down with words that she (correctly) assumes that Raynette doesn’t know. Raynette’s defense is to come back with a story about a cat that was run over in the road. For the first time, Bobby comes to her defense. “You shouldn’t even be in the same room with her, you pompous celibate.” That statement doesn’t come out of love for Raynette but an excuse to throw the woman’s intellectual jackassery back in her face.

Nicholson has a dozen moments like that in Five Easy Pieces. Just when we think we have him figured out, he turns on us, does something unexpected but never really finds a path for himself. He has moments that are startling, like his sexual encounter with Betty that ends with the revelation that he has the word “Triumph” on this T-shirt. There’s the now-famous “chicken salad” scene in which he argues with a waitress over the proper way to make his breakfast before sweeping the entire contents of the table onto the floor. There’s an unexpected moment (my favorite) right at the beginning in which Bobby is stuck in traffic and climbs onto the back of a moving truck to see the source of the holdup. He sees a piano and sits down on the flatbed and starts to play as the truck exits the freeway to parts unknown.

However, it is the ending that brings two of the most heartbreaking scenes of any movie I can remember. One involves a moment between Bobby and his father (William Challee) in which he pushes the old man in his wheelchair out to the shore and opens up, perhaps for the first time. “I don’t know if you’d be particularly interested in hearing anything about me. My life, I mean… Most of it doesn’t add up to much that I could relate as a way of life that you’d approve of. I’d like to be able to tell you why, but I don’t really, I mean, I move around a lot because things tend to get bad when I stay. And I’m looking for auspicious beginnings, I guess I’m trying to, you know, imagine your half of this conversation. My feeling is, that if you could talk, we probably wouldn’t be talking. That’s pretty much how it got to be before … I left … Are you all right?” We sense that this has been a long time coming. The old man, who never speaks sits silently in his chair and stares. Is he staring at Bobby? Does he hear him? What would he say if he could speak?

The other takes place on Bobby’s way back home. With a lot on his mind, he enters the restroom of a gas station, then exits and asks a truck driver for a ride to Canada. Leaving Raynette behind in the car, he cruelly heads out in the truck with no indication of where he is going. What does he hope to find in Canada? Why does he abandon Raylene and his car? I don’t think that even he has an answer.

Best Actress

Glenda Jackson (Women in Love)
The Nominees: Jane Alexander (The Great White Hope), Ali McGraw (Love Story), Sarah Miles (Ryan’s Daughter), Carrie Snodgress (Diary of a Mad Housewife)

Glenda Jackson (Women in Love)
y Nominees: Angela Lansbury (Something for Everyone)


When buzz began about Ken Russell’s adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, it was all focused on a soft-lit nude wrestling match between male co-stars Alan Bates and Oliver Reed. Yet, when the movie was released, the central focus turned to the performance of a 31-year-old actress billed third in the credits named Glenda Jackson. There was a spark about her that was refreshing because it didn’t seem smug. It is one thing to be liberated but quite another to be irritating.

I am sort of ashamed to admit that I am not that familiar with Jackson’s work. In fact, I’ve only seen two of her films, Women in Love and A Touch of Class – the two films for which she won Oscars – and while I (obviously) liked her work in the first, I did not like her much in the second. In Women in Love she is intelligent and sexually free without keeping us at arm’s length but in A Touch of Class she is sexually free but grates on my nerves.

Yet in Ken Russell’s film, she has an endearing spark as the unfortunately named Gudrud Brangwen (pronounced Goo-Drud), a woman in 1920s British high society who spends her days with her sister Ursula (the wonderful Jennie Linden) discussing the promises and the qualities of love. Watching the wedding of a naval officer, their eyes lock on two good-looking chaps in the wedding party. Jennie spots the free-wheeling Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates) while Gudrud focuses on the stiff but handsome Gerald Critch (Oliver Reed). Soon they are locked in passionate love affairs with their respective men but their personalities bring about different results.

Gerald loves Gudrud’s fiery passion but she admits that he really doesn’t know how to love her. He is full of anger and frustration and doesn’t really understand her. Gudrud is a woman with personality and intelligence whose sexuality is surprisingly frank, but she is also sexually liberated in the head. Not content to just be taken, she wants to be made love to mentally as well as physically. She’s very smart, her mind is open where Gerald’s is not. She penetrates right to his inner weakness and it is a trait he cannot deal with. He can’t give her a proper kind of passionate love (there are minor indications that Gerald is privately in love with Rupert).

Jackson is not classically beautiful. She has a bony face with an odd-shaped mouth and large teeth. I think that works in her favor because she looks like a real person rather than the cover of a magazine. She is that rare actress who is always in the moment – when she isn’t speaking she’s listening. She is also the best thing about Women in Love, a movie I’m not terribly passionate about. Director Russell experiments with weird visual styles, as in several sex scenes involving Ursula and Rupert; one of which he films sideways and the other he intercuts with the dead bodies of a couple who have drowned. For these reason, and for the film’s often deadening pace, Women in Love is more or less forgotten. It isn’t a bad film but were it not for the performances, especially by Glenda Jackson, it would have completely faded into obscurity.

All through the 70s, a new kind of woman would emerge, born from the women’s movement. There would be a great many actresses who would find a new kind of voice in film. If you look carefully at the women who won the Oscar as Best Actress (and a great deal who were nominated), you will find that nearly all of them – Glenda Jackson, Jane Fonda, Liza Minnelli, Ellen Burstyn, Faye Dunaway, and Sally Field (Louise Fletcher doesn’t really count), played women either struggling to find their own voice or who were expressing themselves intellectually and sexually. None did a better job then Jackson who managed to play a character who is intelligent, liberated but doesn’t keep us at arms length. She was a new kind of character, one whose life goal isn’t to land in the arms of a man because she has to, but simply because she wants to.

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