Armchair Oscars – 1971

Best Picture

The French Connection (Directed by William Friedkin)
The Nominees: A Clockwork Orange, Fiddler on the Roof, The Last Picture Show, Nicholas and Alexandra

The Last Picture Show (Directed by Peter Bogdanovich)
My Nominees: 
A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman), Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah), Sunday Bloody Sunday (John Schlesinger)


William Friedkin’s The French Connection was the first film to win the Oscar for Best Picture within my lifetime. Ironically, it would later become the first Best Picture winner that I saw. When I saw it as a teenager, I loved it, but revisiting the film recently, I found that much of it’s impact was gone.  At the time, the story of a cop on the edge, in this case Gene Hackman’s Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, who is willing to put the public in danger to bring down a cartel of drug smugglers, was something new. The action scenes were brilliant especially the famous chase between a private car commandeered by Doyle and a suspect on an elevated train. Yet sadly, much of the film’s originality is now dated as the film would spawn a generation of inferior Cop- On-the-Edge action pictures.

For 1971, I much preferred the other great Cop-On-the-Edge picture Dirty Harry, with Clint Eastwood turning in the first performance as one of the screen’s most durable anti-heroes. Both of these films were symbols of their time, a time when the wounds of Civil Rights, Attica, Kent State and the Vietnam War had given the American public a mistrust of authority. It was no longer good enough to simply watch a criminal sent to prison, the crime films of the early 70s simply had to end with the criminal lying in a pool of his own blood. This was part of the new era of American film that was born after the collapse of Hollywood’s production code in the late 60s.

My favorite film of the year was part of the new freedom that came in the wake of the code’s collapse. Peter Bogdonovich’s The Last Picture Show was a film that could not have been made five years earlier with its nudity, foul language and seamy subject matter. Even still, it is one of the best films of the decade. The academy nominated it for Best Picture and for six other awards, including Larry McMurtry’s screenplay, Robert Surtrees’ beautiful black and white photography and supporting awards to Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman. The cast contains a gallery of established stars and actors who were just on the edge of breakout success. Their names are instantly familiar today: Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, Cybill Shepard, Ellen Burstyn, Cloris Leachman, Randy Quaid and Eileen Brennan.

Yet, this is a film that goes beyond awards. It is a piece of filmmaking artistry. It establishes a tone and a mood of a particular time and place, of a town that is slowly dying in the wake of World War II. It takes place in 1951, in the town of Anarene, Texas, a small town where the wind blows blistering cold in the winter and blistering hot in the summer. It is one of those places where everyone knows everyone else and everyone knows everyone else’s business. Almost everyone in town seems to be committing adultery or some other transgression, and within this small population, they have no hope of keeping it quiet.

Whatever life and energy Anarene once had has long since been swept away. The diner, the pool room and old movie house called “The Royal” are the centers of activity. They are owned by the town’s papa bear, a man known as Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson). Our focus falls on several high school kids. We meet Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges), who are on the high school football team but apparently aren’t very good. The day after a game, the town’s unforgiving gaggle of crabby old men waste no words in reminding them of how badly they played. Sonny takes his girlfriend Charlene Duggs (Sharon Taggart) to The Royal in order to spend some time in the balcony making out. He goes out with her, but he doesn’t really love her, he is envious of Duane who gets to make out with the town beauty Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepard).

Sex seems to be a past-time in this town, everyone seems to be either having it, talking about it or trying to get it. In an early scene, Charlene strips topless to make out with Sonny while being felt up but she won’t go all the way. Sonny soon breaks up with Charlene and we learn that he is having a love affair with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), an older woman who is married to Sonny’s football coach. Their relationship is based on mutual need: Sonny has a need to have sex and Ruth has a need to have some passion and feel desired.

Jacy is the town beauty, now 19, and beginning to feel the power of her sexuality over men. She first uses that power during a Christmas party when the goofy Lester (Randy Quaid) invites her to a pool party at the home of a rich kid in a neighboring town. She’s heard of this party, there are rumors that the kids get naked and when she arrives, she finds that the rumors are true. She claims to be a virgin and the rich kid (whose looks remind me a little of George Harrison) tells her to come back when she isn’t a virgin. With that, she tries having sex with Duane but it turns out to be a disaster. So she begins fumbling around with Sonny and he is so delighted to finally have Jacy’s attention that he forgets about Ruth. That leads to a sad moment when he sits in the car with his dream girl and the film cuts to a scene of Ruth sitting heartbroken on the side of her bed.

Standing like a patriarch in this town is Sam the Lion, who owns the pool hall, the diner and The Royal which are the well-springs of life in Anarene. He speaks truth and wisdom and tells of his life experience. There is a beautiful moment in the center of the film when Sam takes Sonny and the retarded kid Billy (Sam Bottoms) down to The Tank, a small river that contains nothing but turtles. In a beautiful monologue, he tells Sonny about a moment long ago when he brought a girl to this very spot and they swam and rode horses. He doesn’t regret not spending his life with her; when he tells the story his expression is that of a man who is just grateful for the experience.

He is a man who has been around. When Duane and Sonny head off for a weekend south of the border, the old man warns them about the water and then, unsmiling, gives them a stern warning about the clap. When they come back they find that the old man has died. This single event gives the film its center section. There’s a sadness at Sam’s funeral as we feel that a giant has passed and the life and soul of Anarene has gone with him.

The closing scenes of The Last Picture Show are probably the saddest that I can remember. The night before Duane heads off to Korea, he and Sonny go to see Red River at The Royal, the very last picture to be shown there before the place closes for good (the new obsession with television is causing the folks to stay home). Sonny sees his friend off to the bus and to a very uncertain future, then walks around and sees that the sparks of life in Anarene are gone. Sam the Lion has died, Jacy and Duane are gone and the wind blows through the main street like a ghost town.

The Last Picture Show
is about the death of the American landscape, of how the changes in the world swept the life from small town America. After World War II, the invention of television and air conditioning kept most Americans at home and so places of social interaction like those in Anarene became desolate. The kids in the town move on because there is nothing left. The film is shot in black and white, and there are scenes that look like an old photograph. I believe that film a great visual memory, it captures times and places that are long gone. Films put a time stamp on times and places and attitudes and moods. The Last Picture Show captures a moment in time, a piece of America that is now gone forever.

Best Actor

Gene Hackman (
The French Connection)
The Nominees: Peter Finch (Sunday Bloody Sunday), Walter Matthau (Kotch), George C. Scott (The Hospital), Topol (Fiddler on the Roof)

Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange)
My Nominees:
Warren Beatty (McCabe and Mrs. Miller), Bud Cort (Harold and Maude), Robert Duvall (THX-1138), Clint Eastwood (Dirty Harry), Jack Nicholson (Carnal Knowledge), Gene Wilder (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory)


Gene Hackman has earthiness about him, he seems like a real guy, not a movie star. That made him perfect for the role of Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, a dogged cop willing to go outside the law to stop a cartel of international drug smugglers. He was only forty years old by the time he won his Oscar, and by that time he has become one of the most reliable faces in film. This was actually his third nomination after losing for Bonnie and Clyde and I Never Sang for My Father.

It would not be a fluke. Over the next two decades, Hackman would forge a brilliant career and make his name as one of those actors who never gave a bad performance even in a bad film. But his dogged cop would always be his most famous and admired role even though hundreds of dogged movie cops have come and gone in the years since. My choice for Best Actor worked on the other side of the law and Malcom McDowell would spend the next several decades forging no less a brilliant career.

In Stanley Kubrick’s futuristic A Clockwork Orange, he plays Alex DeLarge, a Beethoven-loving lad of about twenty who lives with his parents. He spends his days picking up young girls and bringing them home for sex and spends his nights as a street thug. Roaming the streets of Britain with his band of “droogies” and fueled on a substance called Milk Plus, which they acquire from the local milk bar, he is nothing less than a thug who beats innocent citizens to a bloody pulp, rapes, robs and pillages whenever he isn’t in a bloody street fight with other gangs.

The Droogs random acts of violence bring them to the home of Mr. Alexander (Patrick Magee) whom they beat senseless while raping his wife. We never see the act itself, but Alex prepares for this violation with a song and dance rendition of “Singin’ in the Rain.” Later they invade the home of an artist whom Alex accidentally kills with a sculpture. The Droogies, tired of Alex constantly beating and berating them, double-cross him and leave him at the scene of the crime. He goes to jail.

Alex becomes a test subject in an experiment in mind control whereby he is injected with a drug, then strapped to a chair with his eyes forced open while he watches a film footage of the exact kinds of crimes that he commits. But the drug alters his mind and he becomes violently ill. Afterwards, the effects linger and he is overwhelmed by nausea at the very thought of rape or murder or even the strains of Beethoven.

Cast out into the world once again, he learns that what goes around comes around. He runs into his old Droogie buddies who have now become cops and they beat him unmercifully. Through an odd bout of karma, he ends up back in the home of Mr. Alexander. The man doesn’t recognize him at first until he hears him singing, so he locks him in a room and plays Beethoven very loudly until Alex attempts suicide by jumping out the window. Waking up in the hospital, he is visited by several officials and is informed that the experiments were deemed unethical and so they begin a treatment to break him of his conditioning.

What makes Alex so fascinating is how specificly Kubrick presents him. He is a nasty little man, hell-bent on violence and mayhem. What is so unsettling is his pure joy. He isn’t one of those angry youths who is striking back at society. He loves what he is doing. He is a man who loves life, loves to get out of bed in the morning and lives for every carnal lust he can propagate. He carries the demeanor and the curled smile of an unapologetic pervert (which he is) and we in the audience become conditioned to want to like him, to like his laughing demeanor, his bold song and dance even when he’s committing unspeakable acts. His lust for life is infectious.

In the second half of the film, we are pulled in the other direction. We, as the viewer, are rational enough to know that he is committing acts of pure evil and so when he goes through experiments that make him sickened by his actions, we can’t disagree. What makes Alex so interesting are his quirks: his cain and smoking jacket, his lust for Beethoven, his lust for young girls and his joy at beating his droogie underlings senseless. The film is unapologetically misogynistic, Kubrick surrounds him with phallic imagery from his codpiece to his pet snake to his cain, seemingly driven by his own testosterone. What I appreciate most is that Kubrick never gives Alex a reason for doing what he does. In most films like this, the villain is supplied with a childhood trauma, but Alex does what he does because he likes doing it.

Best Actress

Jane Fonda (Klute)
The Nominees: Julie Christie (McCabe and Mrs. Miller), Glenda Jackson (Sunday Blood Sunday), Vanessa Redgrave (Mary Queen of Scots), Janet Suzman (Nicholas & Alexandra)

Julie Christie (McCabe and Mrs. Miller)
y Nominees: Jane Fonda (Klute), Ruth Gordon (Harold and Maude), Barbara Harris (Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?), Cybil Shepard (The Last Picture Show), Jessica Walter (Play Misty For Me), Kitty Winn (A Panic in Needle Park)


By the time Jane Fonda won the Oscar in 1972, she had become one of the most reviled women in America. By openly speaking in favor of the Viet Kong’s Communist regime, and openly stating that “If you understood what Communism was, you would hope, you would pray on your knees that one day we would become Communist.” She made herself an enemy to the men who were fighting and dying in the bloody conflict in Vietnam and by Oscar night the world held its breath to hear what she would have to say. They were disappointed when her comments were limited to: “There’s a lot to say and I’m not going to say it. I would just like to thank you all very much.”

Her stance against the Vietnam war (which she later told Diane Sawyer was a big mistake) had little to do with her acting ability. No matter what you think of her political views, it is hard to deny that this actress came out of the doldrums of an early career in which she waded through junk like Cat Ballou and Barbarella to emerge as one of the best, most respected actors of her generation.

Fonda would win two Oscars in her career (out of seven nominations) and the first came for playing Bree Daniels, a call girl who is stalked by a killer when a detective tracks her down for the death of his friend. It is a great performance. This would become the first role that really got her any respect. Her earlier performance in Sidney Pollack’s grim They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? two years earlier was a primer, showing that she had the chops to play heavy drama.

My choice, however, is Julie Christie who also played a lady of the evening, although Constance Miller comes closer to “whore” than “escort.” In Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, she blows into the town of Presbyterian Church, a town populated mostly by males with a small population of women whose only means of support is in the local whorehouse. Constance comes into town to help restructure the local brothel. She is also, herself, a prostitute.

She arrives by train just as John McCabe (Warren Beatty) is building a house that will serve as brothel, saloon and bath house. She sizes him up and tries to make him understand that without her help, the business will fail. McCabe only has three girls in his service and none are exactly desirable (one is toothless and another seems to have a skin condition). He isn’t very bright, he is full of gusto but does not seem to possess the know-how to keep a business like this going. Constance is a professional madame (and herself a $5 whore) who tells him that the girls that he has in his service won’t do. She lays it on the line for him, telling him that he knows nothing of the intricacies of running a whorehouse, about managing the girls, taking care of their monthly concerns and stemming the tide of the clap. She offers him classier girls from San Francisco. There is a look in his eyes that suggests he hadn’t thought of any of this.

A relationship develops between John and Constance but it doesn’t happen in the conventional sense. There are moments when they sleep in the same bed, but we see that he is in his union suit and climbing into bed is for sleeping. Later we learn that they’ve had sex, but that he had to pay the five dollars. A scene in which he mutters to himself reveals that he isn’t happy with this arrangement: “If just one time,” he says, “you could be sweet without money to it.”

She has an eye for what will make a profit. She knows that in this harsh environment the climate allows no other profession for a woman other than working in the brothel. When one of John’s friends dies, Constance hires his widow Ida (Shelley Duvall), telling her “It’s not so bad. You might even like it! You did just fine with Bart.” Their relationship really takes place on the edges of the story, which is typical of an Altman film. There isn’t a sweeping romantic gesture, just hints at what passes for romance. She hides from him the fact that she has an addiction to opium, which by the end has consumed her.

Constance is smarter than McCabe; when he brags that he has bawked at an offer from a mining company to buy him out for $5,500, she knows that this could mean war and she explains what will happen. He is at least smart enough to listen, and he tries unsuccessfully to find the men to tell them that he has changed his mind. Unfortunately, the men have left town and in their place are the three hired guns who have come to kill him. She knows this his death is inevitable. McCabe and Mrs. Miller is one of the saddest portraits of the American landscape that I’ve ever seen, focusing on a time and place where murder was casual and inevitable and the harsh social order left few opportunities for women. Constance’s voice carries a certain frankness and authority but her sad eyes are born of a society that leaves women with no other profitable venture than spending their lives working on their backs. Constance is a smart woman who knows that John won’t come back alive. In the end, we see that her mind is given over to the drug while she focuses on colors.

What is all this? | Contact Me

2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004 | 2003 | 2002 | 2001 | 2000 | 1999 | 1998 | 1997 | 1996 | 1995 | 1994 | 1993 | 1992 | 1991 | 1990 | 1989 | 1988 | 1987 | 1986 | 1985 | 1984 | 1983 | 1982 | 1981 | 1980 | 1979 | 1978 | 1977 | 1976 | 1975 | 1974 | 1973 | 1972 | 1971 | 1970 | 1969 | 1968 | 1967 | 1966 | 1965 | 1964 | 1963 | 1962 | 1961 | 1960 | 1959 | 1958 | 1957 | 1956 | 1955 | 1954 | 1953 | 1952 | 1951 | 1950 | 1949 | 1948 | 1947 | 1946 | 1945 | 1944 | 1943 | 1942 | 1941 | 1940 | 1939 | 1938 | 1937 | 1936 | 1935 | 1934 | 1932-33 | 1931-32 | 1930-31 | 1929-30 | 1928-29 | 1927-28 |

Contact me @