Armchair Oscars – 1975

Best Picture

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Directed by Milos Foreman)
The Nominees: Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Nashville

Nashville (Directed by Robert Altman)
My Nominees: 
Amarcord (Federico Fellini), Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick), Dog Day Afternoon (Sydney Lumet), Farewell My Lovely (Dick Richards), Jaws (Steven Spielberg), The Man Who Would Be King (John Huston)


Milos Foreman specializes in films about misfits struggling against a rigid system. They were on display in best work, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon, films that about oddballs who aren’t always lovable. Foreman was born in Czechoslovakia and had been working in Europe for a dozen years before Coo Coo’s Nest brought him success here in America.

Based on the satirical 1963 novel by Ken Kesey (which I have read), it tells the story of the struggle of Randal P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), an asylum inmate, to break the grip that the head nurse Mildrid Ratched holds over her patients. The film was right for the times, a decade when authority was seen as mechanical and corrupt and the outlaw took on a heroic status. It is a moving film but I find that some of the book’s irony is lost in translation (the story was narrated by The Chief, a character who hardly speaks).

The cast is uniformly fine. I loved Jack Nicholson in the lead role, a performance that got him his first Oscar, but I wonder about the characters who occupy the film behind him. There is a gallery of great actors who occupy the sides of the frame, Brad Dourif, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli but as I watch the film I wonder about their characters. Some of men in the ward have significant moments but many do not. This is a film stuffed with memorable faces but that’s all they are.

Not to knock Foreman, who is a great director, but I wonder what Cuckoo’s Nest would have been like in the hands of a director like Robert Altman who knew how to mix a jumble of dozens of different characters and give them all a chance to tell their story.

Altman is a director who is famous for traffic control amid a multitude of actors, a talent he has put to good use in MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Popeye, The Player, Short Cuts, Cookie’s Fortune, Gosford Park and the underrated A Prairie Home Companion. All are great films but Nashville is my favorite because it encapsulates all of the elements that made Altman a maverick filmmaker. While other directors run down a checklist for their plot and their characters, Altman tears down the fences and allows his actors to roam free, to expand their characters beyond simplistic formulas. He doesn’t rely on heavy plotting but puts his films in the hands of the characters and lets them their own story. He is generous with his actors, often allowing them to improvise and in Nashville, which is predominantly a musical; he even let his actors write their own songs.

The main hub of the story takes place in Nashville in the middle of a major political campaign for an unseen political candidate named Hal P. Walker who is running on a fringe party and announces his candidacy by driving around in a van with loudspeakers. That’s only the framework that leads to the finale. What we see along the way are a gallery of characters who are interlocked within personal and professional relationships, between sad histories, bad decisions, reconciliations, arguments, donnybrooks and a lot of great music. There are parents, children, brothers, sisters, lovers, co-workers, old friends, ex-friends and total strangers. We meet a lot of different kinds of people, some who act honorably, some who act despicably, and some who hurt others, some who work on other’s behalf and some who only come to around when the chips are down.

We meet Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely), a Loretta Lynn-type who is a sweetheart of Nashville and returns to the city like a homecoming queen but is heavily burdened by a series of health problems. When she is alone in a hospital room with her bullying husband (Allan Garfield) we understand where her nervous breakdown came from. She sings songs with titles like “Tapedeck in his Tractor” and “My Idaho Home”, songs about her country home where she was raised by her momma and daddy. But when she breaks into a song called “Dues”, about her desire to break out of her marriage, we sense that some of her personal problems have wandered into her repertoire. We also sense that her over-bearing husband isn’t her only problem because just out of her line of sight, she is stalked by a PFC (Scott Glenn) for reasons that we don’t expect.

We also meet Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a smarmy country singer and opportunist who is fond of Nudie Suits and takes on political aspirations when Walker’s political organizer mentions that he should run for Governor. Hamilton sings songs like the self-satisfied “For the Sake of the Children”, a song about a man breaking the news to his mistress that he can’t leave his wife and kids, but then he has the song “Keep A-Goin’”, a song who’s meaning only really becomes clear in the film’s final scene.

Then there’s Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), a nutty woman who claims to be a BBC reporter even though we never see a film crew. She talks a lot of nonsense and uses the excuse that she is making a documentary about Nashville in order to get close to famous people even though she never shows anyone any sort of credentials. She has two scenes late in the film that make us question her sanity. One takes place in an automobile junkyard where she talks to herself, lamenting about the rusting metals hulks being tossed away and forgotten like some sort of automotive holocaust (she compares the rust to dried blood). The other scene takes place in a school bus storage lot where she tries describe it as the stuff of children’s nightmares.

There’s Linnea (Lily Tomlin), a gospel singer raising two deaf children and is in the middle of a crumbling marriage to Delbert (Ned Beatty), a lawyer working on Hal Walker’s campaign. She begins receiving phone calls from a singer named Tom Frank (Keith Carradine) a self-absorbed womanizer who has taken an interest in her. She initially hangs up on him but eventually accepts an invitation to go to a club to hear him sing. That leads to the film’s most beautiful moment as several of Tom’s past conquests sit in the audience listening to him sing “I’m Easy” (a song about a man who is absolutely thunderstruck by the woman in his life). Each woman smiles, thinking the song was written about her, but then the camera settles on Tomlin in the back of the room as she slowly realizes that the song is for her.

There’s Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley), Haven’s tough mistress, who drinks heavily and has a stage presence that is seemingly inspired by Minnie Pearl. But that illusion is broken the more we get to know her. Her outward happiness begins to crumble as she confesses her love for Jack and Bobby Kennedy and the hard work she did on their behalf. When she reveals loving memories about the boys, we see a woman who is still shaken by their tragic deaths.

There’s Sueleen (Gwen Welles), an attractive waitress who wants to be a country singer but works harder at trying to be a sex symbol (she is forever stuffing her brassiere). She is a lousy singer but no one will tell her the truth and when she humiliates herself by doing a striptease, a co-worker (Robert DoQui) finally rises up and tells her that she has no talent whatsoever. The problem is the she doesn’t know where to draw the line. We assume that after her humiliation that she will come to her senses but we’re wrong.

There’s Winifred (Barbara Harris), a daffy blonde who wants to be a singer and songwriter. She spends the entire film running from her loud-mouthed husband Star (Bert Remsen) and we don’t assume that she will ever succeed at anything until she is given a chance in the end. She takes the microphone at a crucial moment and really shines.

Functioning around these characters are smaller roles that don’t seem, at first, to have any real significance. Like Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) who’s wife is dying in a hospital. Or Connie White (Karen Black), a Tammy Wynette-type who seems poised to steal Barbara Jean’s spotlight. Or Norman (David Arkin), Tom’s driver who is handed Tom’s guitar and immediately begins playing a baseline that his employer later steals for “I’m Easy”. Or PFC Glenn Kelly (Scott Glenn) who appears to be stalking Barbara Jean, even to the point of spending the night by her bedside while she sleeps but who’s intentions turn out to be completely honorable. He eventually clashes with Kenny Fraiser (David Hayward), a loner who is renting a room from Mr. Green and seems like a nice enough guy until it dawns on us that his machinations bears a strange resemblance to Lee Harvey Oswald.

There is a major political undercurrent all throughout this film, mostly negative. This movie was being made while the Watergate scandal was wrapping up (the scene at the Grand Old Opry was film on the day that Richard Nixon resigned). Politics in the American mindset, as well as in this movie, are all about paranoia and distrust. The major political figure in Nashville functions as a sort of Greek chorus in the form of a van with loudspeakers that shouts support for the candidacy of a certain Hal P. Walker, whose political rally gives the film it’s climax. We never see Walker but his truck shouts some oddly sound reasoning about why he should be the next president. He supports something called The Replacement Party, the kind of fringe party that supports people like Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. But oddly enough, as I began thinking back on the film, I thought of Jimmy Carter, a man who stood for many of the things that Walker’s unseen speaker talks about. Although a Democrat, he favored a more personal approach to government, one that did not rely on back-slapping or on listening to advisors but only from what comes from the heart and the head and God above. That kind of radical ideal doesn’t work in our government (consider that he wasn’t asked back for a second term) and, in a way, it sets up the film’s final act. An assassination plot is in the works and it provides not only the film’s great climax but brings out several of the character’s true natures. Consider how Hamilton reacts even though he has been grazed by a bullet or how Winifred takes the microphone and brings calm to the chaos. I love it when a director has the confidence to take his character in a logical but unexpected direction.

Altman has always been generous with his characters by giving them extra dimensions. Most movie characters are written in a three step process 1.) The character. 2.) Their job and 3.) The conflict. The best movie characters are given a fourth element, a dimension that makes them stand out, makes them interesting, gives them elements of their personalities that allow them to do more than just march through tired old plot requirements. Robert Altman spent his career developing characters like that. With Nashville, he strings together a story that is equal parts comedy, musical, melodrama, human interest story, soap opera and political parable.

Yet with all the film’s multiple elements, Nashville is first and foremost a musical. This is the way Robert Altman describes it and indeed the film makes many stops for its musical numbers – nearly an hour’s worth. The actors sing their own songs (Altman allowed them to write them too) and while many are not great singers but they are able to sell their performances with assured greatness. The best, by a mile, is Keith Carradine who sings the Oscar winning “I’m Easy” with moving tenderness, a song about a man utterly stricken by the woman he loves. It plays well against a character that seems to have no use for those kinds of sentiments. I also liked Haven Hamilton’s “200 Years”, an sickeningly patriotic bicentennial ballad that could have played on the B-Side of “The Ballad of the Green Berets”. I liked “The Heart of a Good Woman”, a sweet little love song that Haven’s son Bud who sings to Opal until her attention is swept up by the presence of Elliott Gould; I was struck by the amazing talent of Karen Black (I had no idea she could sing) as her Connie White takes the place of superstar Barbara Jean and out-performs her by a country mile with “”I Don’t Know If I Found It in You”.

What is amazing about the musical performances is that Altman allows them to continue for four, five, six, seven minutes. It puts you in mind of how little interest is paid to the music in most movies today even in musicals. Most of today’s directors cut or abbreviate their musical numbers down to two or three minutes for fear that the audience will grow restless. But the performers in this movie are allowed to sing their entire song, all the way through. Especially the final number when Winifred sings “You might say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me.” That lyric is repeated over and over until it becomes a rallying cry. Nashville is full of moments like that. It contains the kinds of characters and storytelling structure that is all but gone from today’s filmmaking. Hollywood wouldn’t have the nerve to make a film this jumbled, this deep or this poetic.


Best Actor

Jack Nicholson (
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
The Nominees: Walter Matthau (The Sunshine Boys), Al Pacino (Dog Day Afternoon), Maximilian Schell (The Man in the Glass Booth), James Whitmore (Give ’em Hell Harry)

Robert Mitchum (Farewell, My Lovely)
My Nominees:
Warren Beatty (Shampoo), Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws), Clint Eastwood (The Eiger Sanction), Gene Hackman (The French Connection II), Jack Nicholson (One Flew Over the Coo Coo’s Nest), Al Pacino (Dog Day Afternoon), Roy Scheider (Jaws)


Kirk Douglas tried and failed for years to get an adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Coo-Coo’s Nest to the screen. In nineteen seventy-four, his son Michael teamed up with Saul Zaentz and finally got the greenlight. Kirk was delighted and assumed that Michael would cast his old man in the lead, but it was thought that he was too old so the part (and the Oscar) went to the much younger Jack Nicholson. Based on that, I have a feeling that Thanksgiving that year at the Douglas house wasn’t much fun.

Nicholson had already established himself as one of the most popular actors of his generation. He had made a name for himself in his breakout role as George Hanson in Easy Rider and from there he would become popular as the rascally rebel with a sardonic smile, the sly voice and the ridiculous crazy man’s laugh. Between his breakout role in Easy Rider and his first Oscar for One Flew Over the Coo Coo’s Nest, he would create arguably the best work of his career in Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, Chinatown, The Passenger and The Fortune.

Watching Jack Nicholson is akin to watching the bad kid at school, he’s a rebel who has a gift for mischief and verbal heresy. He is one of those actors who is endlessly watchable. Some of his best gifts are on display in Milos Foreman’s One Flew Over the Coo Coo’s Nest, where he plays Randal P. McMurphy, a misfit who is sent to a mental institution and tries to rally the inmates against their clinical prison by encouraging them to do normal things. His encouragement is not met with favor by the ward’s unfeeling chief Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) whose clout pulls against McMurphy’s rebellion.

It is a great performance because we aren’t always sure what McMurphy is going to do nor what he’s thinking. Even when Ratched’s force of will begins to wear him down we can still see him fighting.

Nicholson’s Best Actor award was part of the film’s Oscar sweep, this was the first film since 1934’s It Happened One Night to win Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and screenplay. That doesn’t mean much beyond the fact that the movie was extremely popular and so was Nicholson. He would win two other Oscars in his career, one for supporting in Terms of Endearment and another for Best Actor in As Good As It Gets. Here’s some trivia: Every time he has won an Oscar, his female co-star has won Best Actress.

The other nominees for Best Actor (with the exception of Pacino) were not that great. I would like to have seen some recognition for my choice for Best Actor, Robert Mitchum for finally getting the chance to play Phillip Marlowe in Dick Richards’ little-seen Farewell, My Lovely. It doesn’t happen often that the right actor finds themselves in the role of a great literary character but in the case of Marlowe, Mitchum fit him like a glove.

Mitchum returns to the genre he helped to create, in this great throw-back to the noir classics of the 40s (adapted from the novel by Raymond Chandler) he plays Marlowe as a weary, burned-out P.I., fedora snapped down over his brow, cigarette planted in his mug and sporting a nose for trouble. This is Los Angeles, 1941 and when we first see him, the camera pans up to a window where he stands looking out at this weary old city and we just know that it won’t be long before he is neck-deep in danger. We get a goofy, knowing grin as his deep, weary voice begins a narration. He tells us “This past spring was the first time that I felt tired and realized that I was growing old. Maybe it was the rotten weather we’d had in L.A., maybe it was the rotten cases I’d had.”

We see a man who’s eyes are filled with regret, who’s voice reveals a great deal of sadness. Here is a man who’s growing old and what he’s seen of the world has come through the dregs of society: murdering husbands, cheating wives, perverts, double crossers, double-dealers or simply the most diseased members of the species. We can sense all of this just in a few opening passages as he tells us that he is simply tired and his only joy comes from the World Series. He tells us: “The only pleasure I’d had at all was following Joe DiMaggio pelting the apple at an incredible clip for the New York Yankees”.

His downtime is soon to pass when he is hired by a lunkheaded brick named Moose Malloy (played former prize fighter Jack O’Halloran in his film debut). When Marlowe first meets this towering hulk he describes their encounter as “a hand I could have sat in took hold of me”. Moose may not be a gentle giant but his eyes betray a needy heart. He wants Marlowe to find his girl, Velma, a hooker he was going to marry seven years ago before a bank job went bad. He took the blame and did time for her. Out on parole, Moose is panicked because she stopped writing and he wants Marlowe to find out where she went.

This isn’t a case of simply knocking on a door and being introduced to her. The case becomes a journey through the lurid underbelly of Los Angeles. There’s a bar in the ghetto where Moose kills a man who won’t give him any information, “I just wanted him to tell me where my Velma is” he says with a soft voice, moist eyes and a dead man’s neck in both hands. There’s a bizarre adventure in a brothel run by a large scary woman (Kate Murtaugh) who sticks a needle in Marlowe’s neck and, when he comes around, finds that he is locked in a room with a dead guy.

There is also an encounter with a swishy little man named Marriott (John O’Leary) who hires Marlowe to carry money for him to a rendezvous to recover some stolen jewelry, a rendezvous that ends badly for Marriott. Wherever Marlowe goes in this case, dead bodies keep turning up. That’s where Lieutenant McNulty (John Ireland) comes in. He knows Marlowe’s reputation but would like to know why there’s seems to be so much death in his wake.

Mitchum, working with director Dick Richards, creates not only the best screen appearance of Philip Marlowe (who has previously been played by Humprey Bogart, James Garner, Elliott Gould and would be played one more time by Mitchum in 1978’s The Big Sleep) but gives one of the best angles on the character. Here he’s older (Mitchum was 58) and a little more run down. There are moments when we see the exhaustion of life in his eyes and even though he’s older he still gets in the same gut-busting mess that he’s known for. His dialogue is perfect especially when he comes upon a motel: “It was one of those transient motels, something between a fleabag and a dive.” or when he tries to get some information: “I sparred with the night clerk for a couple of minutes, but it was like trying to open a sardine can after you broke off the metal lip. There was something about Abraham Lincoln’s picture that loosened him up.” He has a natural feel for Chandler’s dialogue but, like everything else with Mitchum, it never feels forced.

Robert Mitchum was one of those actors, like Alec Guinness, who came so naturally to acting that it kind of made him invisible. He wasn’t showy even in a showy role like his murdering preacher in Night of the Hunter. He could come onscreen so effortlessly that we never saw an actor in front of a set rather a character in his natural setting (which I think is why he never won an Oscar). Mitchum understands Philip Marlowe more than any actor who ever played him, he understands when no matter how weird or how dangerous the case gets, it’s all just part of the job. I wanted to applaud the ending when, after a mountain of dead bodies and a case so bizarre it borders on parody, he doesn’t seem rattled by it. Strolling into a bar he tells us: ” I had two grand inside my breast pocket that needed a home – and I knew just the place.”

Best Actress

Louise Fletcher (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
The Nominees: Isabelle Adjani (The Story of Adele H), Glenda Jackson (Hedda), Carol Kane (Hester Street), Ann-Margaret (Tommy)

Isabelle Adjani (The Story of Adele H)
y Nominees: none


Nineteen Seventy-Five was not a great year for actresses in leading roles. The winner, among a very diverse group of nominees was Louise Fletcher for her ice-cold Nurse Rached who mercilessly looks over a ward full of asylum inmates in Milos Foreman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The key to her performance is that Fletcher never makes the mistake of giving Rached any joy in the cruelty she doles out. She shames her charges, belittles them, dopes them up, puts them through shock therapy but there is never the suggestion on her face that she is enjoying any of this nor does she ever suggest that she is bothered by it. Her eyes have a cold, deadness that lays at the center of the film.

This was an element that director Foreman didn’t like (he wanted Shelley Duvall). Fletcher auditioned six times for the role but was turned down because he didn’t like the approach that she was bringing to it. She was hired for the part only a week before filming began. I liked Fletcher in the film but I’m not really sure that it’s a role fit for an Academy Award, Rached is an unnerving presence in the book and Fletcher is able to inject that into the film. It is an effective performance.

My choice for Best Actress is Isabel Adjani in the title role of Francios Trauffat’s The Story of Adele H, a performance that contained multitudes of notes. Adjani plays Adele Hugo, the second daughter of author Victor Hugo. Devastated by the loss of her sister, the movie finds her living with her father in exile on the isle of Guernsey where she falls in love with one Lieutenant Pinson, a British Naval Officer who seduced her and whom her father has selected as a husband. She goes to Halifax to rekindle a romance with him only to find that Pinson wants nothing to do with her (marriage would mean he can’t whore around) and makes it clear that there will never be any chance of a life together. We’ve sensed from the very beginning that Adele is a little mad and that knowledge gives weight to what she does for the rest of the film.

She is undeterred by his brush-off and begins writing bogus letters back home the she and Pinson are in the throws of a love affair and later she writes of their marriage. Meanwhile she keeps pursuing him, peeping at him while he is having sex, she arranges prostitutes, slips letters into his pockets and sends him money. He is unmoved but she is remains determined even at one point stuffing a pillow under her dress and telling Pinson’s father that she is pregnant with his child.

She becomes further and further detached from her own sanity until her pride, her dignity and her consciousness of the surrounding world are virtually gone. Terribly ill she sleeps in flophouses but never gives up on Pinson even though it is clear that he is a rat and isn’t worth her time. Adjani is the right actress for this material because her breathtaking beauty leaves us thinking that this is a woman who could level any man with her eyes and yet her madness leaves her to pursue a man who wouldn’t know a good woman if she fell on him. To look at Adele is to understand the commonality of all of Truffaut’s characters who are not led by plot but are urged on by their personalities, their obsessions and their emotions. He loves long close-ups of her beautiful face and there is a sense of her tunnel vision.

What we see in that beautiful face is that there is a battle going on inside. There are two sides of Adele, one in reality and one in her writing that are battling for control over her mind. In her writings, the world is a happy, joyous place and as she descends ever further into her madness it consumes her soul. This makes her sound like just a stubborn girl who clings to an uninterested lover, but the screenplay is much smarter than that. Adele is unstable from the beginning (though it is not very apparent) and Pinson rejection fuels her madness and consumes her for the rest of her life.

Truffaut isn’t interested in pushing Adele into a simple-minded role as a sympathetic waif, his characters were always more complex than that. Adele isn’t molded to our affections but we pay witness to an irrational woman trapped between an unloving father and an unloving man whom her madness won’t leave behind. The collaboration of Truffaut and Adjani was brilliant, they present the portrait of soul trapped by obsession but refuse to give her any ray of sunshine. The closest thing is in the end in which she wanders the streets wearing rags in a catatonic state and she doesn’t recognize Pinson when she passes him on the street. Maybe, for her, this is best.

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