Armchair Oscars – 1974

Best Picture

The Godfather Part II (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
The Nominees: Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny, The Towering Inferno

Chinatown (Directed by Roman Polanski)
My Nominees: 
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Martin Scorsese), Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Sam Peckinpah), The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola), The Longest Yard (Robert Aldrich), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones), A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes), Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks)


Three weeks after The Godfather was named Best Picture of nineteen seventy-two, Paramount Pictures announced that it was giving the green light to a sequel. This would be a challenge for Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo because this time around there was no book from which to draw their inspiration. So, they put their heads together and came up with an original screenplay, this time following the sad destiny of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) who attempts to expand his mafia empire from Las Vegas to Cuba and Hollywood while rooting out traitors in his own family. Meanwhile, in a parallel story, we follow the turn-of-the-century journey of young Vito Corleone (Supporting Actor winner Robert De Niro) who immigrates to American from Sicily after his family’s murder and builds his mafia empire.

Both stories are compelling but I wish they had been separate films. The Godfather Part II moves back and forth between the story of Michael and his father’s early years but this shift kills the film’s forward momentum. Just as we are finding our footing with Michael’s story, the film moves back to Vito’s story and the viewer is forced to shift gears.

Unlike the clear narrative of the first film, this one often feels a little muddy.  Plus, I always get lost in the sheer volume of characters that we are asked to keep up with.  The brilliance of the original is that we understood who everyone was in their relation to the central plot, but here I found an overpopulation of unfocused and unnecessary characters.

My favorite film of nineteen seventy-four is Roman Polanski’s brilliant film noir classic Chinatown, a film that is just as complex and nearly as populated as The Godfather Part II but was far more enjoyable to follow.  The film falls into the same world as The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity but this one seems a little more ambitious, possibly because by the early seventies, after the breakdown of the production code, there was more freedom for Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne to explore.

The film takes place in depression-era Los Angeles in the middle of a terrible drought that is causing the farmers to go broke.  Our focus falls on a weary private eye named Jake Gittes, who spends his days getting assignments from jilted husbands or wives then spends his nights getting candid photos of their cheating spouse.  It is a dirty business but it pays the bills.  Gittes exists in the same scummy world where we remember Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon.  What they have in common is that they both make a living dealing with the underbelly of mankind.  Bogart’s Sam Spade was hardened by his experience and saddened by it too.  Gittes is just as disgusted but doesn’t quite have his level of cynicism. Give him time.

As the film opens he is asked by a woman who claims to be Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd) to find out if her husband is cheating on her.  She doesn’t sound all that different from most of the dames who come through the door but he takes the case anyway.  He tails the husband Hollis Mulwray through a city meeting where he is very adamant that he won’t build a reservoir to a dried up river bed, a place where the gallons of perfectly good water are dumped into the ocean that later washes out Mulwray’s drowned corpse.  Curious, he was found in fresh water with salt water in his lungs.

Ever more curious is the fact that the woman who claimed to be Mrs. Mulwray wasn’t Mrs. Mulwray. That becomes abundantly clear when the real Mrs. Mulwray shows up.  Like all great film noir, the film’s perspective comes from the point of view of the hero in the center.  Through the progression of this story we learn only what Gittes learns and what he finds out is a crime far larger than he could have imagined.  In a case that includes murder and incest, a larger crime emerges involving some rich men who want to get richer by diverting the water away from the land and secretly dumping it into the ocean so the land dries up and the farmers go broke.  Then these rich men will buy up the land dirt cheap and then revert the water, making everything green again and making them millions. That’s a brilliant plan (based on fact) and when Gittes arrives at one of the profiteers, the bullish millionaire Noah Cross (John Huston), he reasonably has to ask “Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can’t already afford?”.  Cross slickly tells him, “The future, Mr. Gits, the future.” (He calls him Gits, not Gittes).

But why write a script with land as a crime?  Why not drugs?  booze?  prostitution?  Why land and water?  Because it makes sense, that’s why.  Drugs would have been a sexier mcguffin but it would have made less sense. The brilliance of Towne’s script is that everything makes logical sense. He wraps the story so that something that looks like a throw-away subplot comes to mean something later. Take, for example, Curly (Burt Young) whom we meet at the very beginning as Gittes shows him photographs of his wife in various sexual positions with another man. Later, when Gittes arrives at their door he is greeted by his wife who now sports a black eye. Their home becomes a diversion as Jake and Evelyn elude some men who are following them.

The movie would be nothing if we didn’t remember the characters. The movie is populated with memorable faces like Noah Cross with his large frame and beady eyes; Hollis Mulwray with his small frame and beaky face; Curly, with his portly build who nearly destroys Gittes venetian blinds when he finds out about his wife; Duffy (Bruce Glover), a sinister type with the face of a happy pervert; Even the puny knife-wielding thug (Roman Polanski) who gives Gittes a warning by slicing his nose stays in our minds.

At the center of it all is Jack Nicholson.  His Jake Gittes is in the same league as Bogart’s Sam Spade, the only difference he seems a little less seasoned.  He’s younger, although there is a sadness present in his eyes.  Gittes is shrewd rather than reactionary. He knows how to open seemingly unbreachable doors. There is a wonderful scene when he goes to see Mr. Mulwray but is stopped just outside the man’s office by his unfriendly secretary (Fritzi Burr) who coldly informs him that her boss is in a meeting and will be tied up for some time.  Gittes, wearing polite charm, tells her he will be happy to wait.  The irritated secretary sits behind her desk and goes back to work, trying to ignore him while he sits in a chair in from of her desk with his back to us.  She apparently hopes he will simply go away, but he sits, with his leg crossed, his hat in his lap and quietly hums.  He trumps the secretary’s cold dismissiveness by offering her a cigarette.  He stands, walks around the office and admires the pictures of Mulwray with important people, then politely asks the secretary rudimentary questions about the man’s apparent love of fishing.  The secretary, out of frustration, slams her pencil onto her notepad and marches into her bosses office, emerging to tell Gittes “Mr. Mulwray will see you now.”

Nicholson is part of the reason that Chinatown works so well.  With that famous smile and this silky voice he’s perfect for Robert Towne’s dialogue (“You can’t eat the Venetian blinds. I just had them installed on Wednesday.”)  He was already an established star having had his breakthrough as George Hanson in Easy Rider then followed it with Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens and The Last Detail – most actors go their whole careers and never have such a good four years.  A year after Chinatown would come his first Oscar for his performance as Randal P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Coo Coo’s Nest where he famously said “I guess this means that there are as many nuts in the academy as anyplace else”.

By the time Nicholson won his first Oscar (he would eventually end up with three) he was a full-fledged movie star and would continue so for the next four decades.  He’s an original with that silk voice, those devilish eyebrows, that cheshire cat grin, he created a persona that was not only original but works beautifully in a variety of roles.  Where it fits beautifully into Chinatown is that his original persona mixes beautifully with the off-kilter script.  He plays many notes here but the most surprising is that, occasionally, he isn’t afraid to look like a jerk.  Here is a movie that contains enough story for five movies and dead in the center is a man who, up until he begins to crack the case, thought he’d seen it all.  As I said, I like the fact that Gittes is younger than your average noir hero, it gives him relief from the required ground-in cynicism.

That cynicism may come after the film’s bloody climax.  When he goes back to Chinatown, Evelyn is murdered and Noah gets away with his incestuous child.  It is a weird ending in which bad things happen to good people, the villain doesn’t get his comeuppance and what passes for reassurance is that one of his associates tells him “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown”.

Best Actor

Art Carney (
Harry and Tonto)
The Nominees: Albert Finney (Murder on the Orient Express), Dustin Hoffman (Lenny), Jack Nicholson (Chinatown), Al Pacino (The Godfather Part II)

Gene Hackman (The Conversation)
My Nominees:
Jack Nicholson (Chinatown), Al Pacino (The Godfather Part II), Gene Wilder (Young Frankenstein)


In a year when most lead actors played men locked in life or death struggles, the winner of nineteen-seventy four’s Best Actor prize played a gentle soul on a cross-country odyssey with his cat. Writer-director Paul Mazursky intended Harry and Tonto to be a return for James Cagney but the actor, who hadn’t been in a film for more than a decade, was too happy in his retirement so Art Carney got the role and the Oscar. Carney fits the role like a glove, playing Harry Coombes, a widower who goes on a journey across the country after the building, where he lived with his wife and kids for 40 years, is condemned and demolished.

Carney was a lovable presence both on television and in the movies but I’m not sure that his performance here was worthy of an Oscar. Harry is a good-hearted, stubborn old goat who is fun to spend time with, which is a nice way of saying, this is same character that he played in every film.
I understand why the academy wanted to honor to Art Carney – it is always fun to reward an entertainment veteran – but I cannot understand why Gene Hackman was unnominated for the best performance of his career.

In a year in which all of Francis Ford Coppola’s media attention was focused on The Godfather Part II, his other film, The Conversation, languished. It received a Best Picture nomination and favorable reviews but it faltered at the box office. That is always a mystery to me because in the year of the Watergate disaster, this film should have irresistible. It is one of Coppola’s best and, as I said, it contains Gene Hackman’s best performance.  He plays Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who makes a living taping private conversations for money.  He is a legend among his colleagues in the field of surveillance probably because they aren’t privy to his work.  He lives alone, keeps to himself, has no friends, builds his own surveillance equipment and values his privacy.  His private work station is located in the back of a cold, empty warehouse behind an ugly chain-linked fence.

He doesn’t exactly look approachable with his thick mustache, horn-rimmed glasses and ridiculous plastic rain coat. Perhaps, that’s the point.  His colleagues admire him for his skill but he spaces himself away perhaps because if he ever let anyone into his life, they might realize how bad he is at his job.  As the movie opens he discovers that his landlady has let herself into his apartment in order to leave him a birthday present.  His unlisted phone number, he discovers, is in the hands of two other people.  Later, one of his fellow surveillance experts is able to plant a microphone on him with relative ease and then he ends up having some of his tapes stolen by the one woman that he would least expect to have any interest in them.

Perhaps the best reason that Harry is so emotionally withdrawn is that sometime ago, one of his surveillance assignments led to the brutal murder of a woman and her child.  For this reason, he keeps an emotional distance from those around him and from his work.  He does his job, he turns over this findings to his clients and makes his money.  Yet, in his latest job he fears that it may be happening all over again.  He has recorded a young couple Anne and Mike (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) walking around a busy plaza having a conversation during a jazz festival. Stationing three microphones around, one on a sniper scope, one a parabolic mike propped in a window and one on an assistant, he is able to capture their conversation from all sides.  They don’t seem to be talking about much at first but as he listens back over their conversation he begins to suspect that the man who hired him will kill these two when he gets the tapes.

Harry’s conscience gnaws at him.  He convinces himself that he is just doing his job, yet the job came by his own hand and by his own hand came two deaths.  He tries to reason out his guilt in the confessional.  After confessing to meager things like taking more than one newspaper from the box, he gets down to what’s really bothering him.  “I’ve been involved in some work that I think will be used to hurt these two young people.”, he tells the priest, “It’s happened to me before. People were hurt because of my work, and I’m afraid it could happen again and I’m . . . I was in no way responsible. I’m not responsible. For these and all my sins of my past life, I am heartily sorry.”  We suspect that he only needs the priest there to have someone to listen, the confessional is really a means to convince himself.

He plays the recording of the couple back again and again and again, trying to dial down the music so he can better understand what is being said.  Eventually, he gets a time and place where they will meet although they never say why.  Again and again Harry refuses to give the tapes over to the client, the head of a large company, having to grapple instead with the client’s unflinching assistant (Harrison Ford).  After a convention he allows his one of his chief colleagues, a blow-hard named Moran (Alan Garfield) and some others into his private work station, Harry has invited them but couldn’t look more uncomfortable.  He spends the night with a prostitute who tagged along.  She seduces him more with words than with sex, comparing the nature of her profession with his “It’s only a trick, a job. You’re not supposed to think anything about it. Just supposed to do it.”  We are as surprised as Harry when he wakes up and finds that she has stolen his tapes.

He is sure that she has given the client the tapes and decides to go to the hotel where the couple were going to meet and possibly do something about it.  What, exactly, he could do is not very clear.  He gets the hotel room next door to the one mentioned in the tapes and positions himself in the bathroom next to the toilet so he can hear what is going on, he hears Anne scream and then everything goes silent.  What he discovers isn’t exactly what he expected but it isn’t any better than what he expected either.  Sneaking into the hotel room next door some time later he finds it vacated and scrubbed clean, that is, until he something crimson red bubbles up in the toilet.  Is Harry imagining things?  He panics and runs home and begins tearing the boards out of the walls and the floor of his apartment looking for a bug that he isn’t even sure is there.

Gene Hackman is an actor with many notes to play.  He has a wide, avuncular smile that can either come from warmth or menace.  He has a calm, gravel voice that can change to a booming roar.  But Harry is like nothing he ever played before or since.  Compare this performance with his work as Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, the performance that got him his first Oscar, they are almost polar opposites.  Doyle is a violent cop with a booming voice who is willing to go outside the law to catch a criminal.  Harry is a man wrapped in his own paranoia and insecurity.  He does his job but he feels guilt about the nature of his work, which is really just eavesdropping for money.  Watching the film again recently I realized how few characters like this there are in the movies, most are extroverts who do bad things and feel good about it.  Very few, a very few ever deal with the guilt of what they are doing.

Best Actress

Ellen Burstyn (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore)
The Nominees: Diahann Carroll (Claudine), Faye Dunaway (Chinatown), Valeria Perrine (Lenny), Gena Rowlands (A Woman Under the Influence)

Gena Rowlands (A Woman Under the Influence)
y Nominees: Ellen Burstyn (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) Goldie Hawn (The Sugarland Express), Liv Ullman (Scenes From a Marriage)


By nineteen seventy-four, Ellen Burstyn had proven herself to be one of the best actors of her generation.  She had been in show business for a dozen years, she was a student of Lee Strasburg’s acting studio, worked on Broadway and had become a regular face on television (she even had her own show!).  That was the sixties. In the seventies, she would become a full-fledged movie star, doing some of her best work in Tropic of Cancer, The Exorcist, The Last Picture Show, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Jack Hill’s forgotten Pit Stop.

Ellen Burstyn possessed something that her contemporaries did not.  She displayed an upfront vulnerability and the willingness to play characters who weren’t always lovable.  Her characters made mistakes, became frustrated, threw fits and sometimes looked foolish. In other words, she avoided the guarded qualities the most actors – male or female – put up between them and the audience.

That real emotion made her a box office attraction with nineteen seventy-three’s The Exorcist, a film so successful that it convinced Warner Brothers to give Burstyn complete creative control over her next project.  She selected a script written by Robert Getchell called Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore about a widowed mother trying to find her independence.  For a director, she turned to a young, up and coming director named Martin Scorsese because she was impressed by his latest film Mean Streets.

What these three created was an amazingly original character.  Burstyn plays Alice Hyatt, a housewife who suddenly finds herself widowed and travels, with her son Tommy, to California to revive a singing career that she has had to put on hold.  But she gets held up in Tucson, Arizona and takes a job working in a diner during the day and singing in a piano bar at night.  Meanwhile she falls into the arms of two different men.  First is Ben (Harvey Kietel), a guy who turns out to be married and abusive.  Second is David (Kris Kristofferson), a good man that she grows to love and eventually settles down with.

I like Alice.  She was an interesting, original woman, headstrong and with a clear intention on gaining her independence.  My problem is that at the end of the film she decides to settle down again, once again giving up her independence and, for me, that pulls the rug out from under the very thing she was shooting for.

I liked Ellen Burstyn’s performance and I am glad that she has been recognized by the academy (this was her third nomination).  But this gifted actress had many more notes to play.  I think her best work was yet to come, in nineteen-eighty in Daniel Petrie’s Resurrection and in two thousand-one in Darren Aaronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (I rewarded both).

My choice is Burstyn’s chief competitor for the Best Actress prize, Gena Rowlands, who turned in her single greatest performance in husband John Cassavettes’ A Woman Under the Influence, the story of the deterioration of a woman’s mind under the stress of a husband who is determined to force happiness on his family’s household.

She plays Mabel Longhetti (pronounced “May-Bell”) and from the very beginning we sense that something about her isn’t right.  When she loads her kids into grandma’s car to send them away for the weekend, her behavior is unusually erratic.  Her face seems harried and a bit panicky.  Her first words are “No yelling!”.  Something about her behavior is a bit off.  The personality tics that we search for in our fellow human being are replaced by odd mannerisms.

She exists in a space that seems unnatural to those of us looking in on her life.  She is married to Nick (Peter Falk), a construction worker whose mood changes based on the level of happiness being displayed in the house.  They have three kids who take ringside seats to a display of ever-changing mood swings.  There doesn’t seem to be an overabundance of alcohol or violence (though these things present themselves) or any of the usual household problems but there never seems to be a consistent tone either.  Mobs of neighbors and family members thunder through their house, telling the Longhetti’s how to live their lives but there is never a sense of calm or reasoning, just shouting.

The Longhetti’s house has a strange layout.  It is a small house with very little privacy, absent of a place where a person could go and be by themselves because the construction of the house is open enough so that everyone else is always in each other’s business.  The bathroom is just off the dining room with a large sign reading “PRIVACY” even though everyone in the film seems to ignore that suggestion.  Nick and Mabel have no bedroom of their own and sleep in a fold out couch behind a pair of double doors.  When Nick wants to sleep late, the room is then flooded with kids and then a nagging mother-in-law.

Mabel is eager to please.  In her household that is always buzzing she seems to function in a panic-state if it threatens to slow down.  The problem is that her eagerness does not have a limit.  Yet she seems to be missing a cautious filter. She begins by being sweet and polite but doesn’t know when to stop. At the beginning of the film she and Nick have planned an intimate evening that is sidelined when Nick is called away to fix a busted water line. She goes to a bar and begins a conversation with a guy that she eventually brings home. Later when she comes to her senses, she finds that she had difficulty getting the guy to leave. Something in her behavior suggests that this is a routine. Luckily the guy clears out just as Nick makes it home with fifteen of his co-workers for dinner. Mabel, eager to please, offers them all spaghetti.  While at dinner she tries to be friendly, she makes conversation, and urges an unwilling man to dance with her. Nick tries to bring back some sanity to the moment, “Mabel, you’ve had your fun. That’s enough.” As everyone awkwardly clears out, she becomes an emotional wreck, angry with herself for turning a nice evening into a disaster.

What becomes clear to us is that this isn’t a household that anyone could understand who doesn’t live under their roof. That’s why the family members who constantly intrude are always expressing angry opinions about the children’s welfare. They may be right to be concerned. Nick is always angry, always trying to force happiness on his wife and children (at one point he pulls the kids out of school to take them to the beach) and we see that it has an effect on Mabel. He wants happiness and she drives herself mad trying to provide it. “Tell me what you want me to be”, she tells Nick.

She may be mad or she may not. This is a woman who is in desperate need of therapy and when she is sent away to an institution for six months, we are left at the house with Nick and the kids. We are never privy to what she revealed or concealed while she was away. Everything always seems staged in Mabel’s life, everything is for the benefit of seeming happy. Take for example the scene in which she returns home from the institution and is greeted by a large party of family and friends thrown by Nick who ends up throwing everyone out. There is a sense that everyone is happy to see her back in her occupied role of wife and mother but there is a sense that this may have been the problem in the first place.

Cassavettes films are always fascinating. They never feel like a staged production, but more like he is following people around in their lives and recording the events that take place. It is an improvisational style that works beautifully because we never know what is coming next. When his camera is on Mabel, we can see an outsider’s point of view of a woman who’s mind is burning under the wreck of a staged production she is forced to perform. Rowlands never forces the slightest bit of sympathy from Mabel. She creates a woman who always seems in a panic state, always seems as if she afraid of failing to please. There is a display a childishness, when she is angry she makes sour faces and points with her thumbs. What is most unsettling is that for all the attempts to force happiness and push her into therapy, no one ever stops long enough to simple ask her what is wrong. That’s tragic.

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