Armchair Oscars – 1977

Best Picture

Annie Hall (Directed by Woody Allen)
The Nominees: The Goodbye Girl, Julia, Star Wars, The Turning Point

Star Wars (Directed by George Lucas)
My Nominees: 
Annie Hall (Woody Allen), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg), Saturday Night Fever (John Badham), Three Women (Robert Altman)


In Nineteen Seventy-Seven, Woody Allen turned his artistic focus from slapstick comedy to a more serious kind of sophisticated effort and made himself more respectable. His offering was Annie Hall, an intelligent look at the speedbumps of a potentially successful relationship from meeting, to courting, to sex and into the break-up. It was an insightful, innovative romantic comedy that accurately portrayed the pratfalls and pitfalls of romantic life as it existed in the 1970s.

The movie hangs together beautifully with Allen himself cast as Alvy Singer, a neurotic stand-up comedian who recalls the relationship with his title girlfriend, a daffy neurotic played by Diane Keaton. But many began to wonder if this new, more sophisticated Woody Allen was a good thing. In his subsequent career, he would abandon his slapstick gems like Take the Money and Run, Sleeper and (my favorite) Love and Death and transform himself into a more serious satirist. Myself, I don’t mind the more refined Woody Allen, the one who went on to make such masterpieces as Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

My favorite Woody Allen film is still Manhattan, made just two years after Annie Hall. I wish the academy had held off for that one and given the Oscar to my favorite film of the decade because while Annie Hall was a turning point for Woody Allen, George Lucas’ Star Wars was a turning point for the entire direction of American movies.

I may be choosing Star Wars over Annie Hall for completely personal reasons. George Lucas’ fairy tale has had more of an impact on me than any other film that I have ever seen. It was the first film I remember seeing, it stayed with me through my childhood and infused me with a passion for film that has never left me. To this day, I am a Star Wars fan and probably well remain forever after.

Star Wars is a film that offers up a science fiction extravaganza containing elements we already know. Lucas offers a story that we can easily get comfortable with. He offers character types and gives them bold personalities: The callow youth, the hot-shot, the wise old wizard, the beautiful princess (in need of rescue, of course) and the loyal support of the muscle and the bickering comic relief. He offers a villainous enterprise not a million miles removed from the Nazi regime.  He places his heroes in the path of overwhelming odds so that tiniest dot in the universe ends up making a dent in the villain’s evil plan.

For better and for worse, Star Wars would change the direction of American cinema. The decade had been ushered in by a new breed of rebel filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg who made personal films, small intimate films that didn’t need a large budget. But when Jaws and Star Wars both became a box office triumph, Hollywood saw the box office potential and turned their intentions toward a large scale entertainment.

What Lucas had that other filmmakers in this genre did not was an eye for detail. It is easy to hammer together a series of cardboard sets and have actors stand in front of them but to create a desert town populated by humans, aliens, creatures and droids packed into the background so that entire frame feels populated was something unheard of. He also created what has been called the “used future”, realizing that automobiles in his fantasy world should look used and rusted and aged, not sleek and looking as it if were created before the camera was turned on. Note Luke Skywalker’s Landspeeder which has a thick coat of rust and grime and a paint job that suggests it has spent it’s entire existance sitting in the hot sun. Also note Han Solo’s Millienum Falcon, a rusty hulk that seems hammered together from spare parts (the in-joke of the film is that the heroes keep noting how shoddy it looks even as it’s saving their skins).

As with all landmark films Star Wars was the right movie for the right time. It came along in the mid-seventies, in the midst of a wave of personal and gritty films like Taxi Driver, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, movies that were born out of the decade after the production codes had collapsed and filmmakers were free to tell real stories without persecution and nullifying censorship. It was Star Wars that put that kind of film out to pasture and in it’s wake came the era of the blockbuster, when films for profit became the mainstay. For well and for ill, it changed the Hollywood mindset and moved the industry toward more fantasy oriented fare, an era we are still experiencing.

For Lucas, making the film was an uphill battle because, at the time, science fiction was considered box office poison.  The most prominent sci-fi was Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that had more detractors then fans.  The studio feared that the same reaction would meet Star Wars and had so little confidence in it’s success that they set up a tax shelter for when the film flopped.  The distributor couldn’t get theaters to buy the film unless they sold it as a package deal with a movie that they thought was destined to be a blockbuster – The Other Side of Midnight – Heard of it? Me neither.

Yet the film did succeed, mostly due in part to Lucas’ decision to make the film his own way.  He broke the rules by eliminating traditional opening credits (he paid a fine for this and then dropped out of the Director’s Guild). He announces that the story takes place in the past but look like the future.  He starts in the middle of the series (this is Episode IV) progresses his saga forward then turns back and tells the preceding story up to the point where this film begins.

By starting in the middle he develops a story that already has a rich history with characters that are fleshed out to the point that we are always interested in their relationships.  He develops a warrior spirit that is passed on from one generation to the next, from an old wizard Ben Kenobi, who is the keeper of a dying zen religion – The Force – that favors patience and a clear-head over mindless violence.  He imparts it upon the young Luke Skywalker, a callow youth hungry for adventure that we only slowly understand is the one who will bring about the end of the Nazi-like Galactic Empire.  The friends he takes along on his journey start as bold character types (a hotshot loner, a loyal dog-like companion, a feisty revolutionary and a pair of bickering robot who provide the comedy relief) but eventually their personality become more refined and we care about their journey.  Lucas was generous in these details.

Star Wars is a pure moviegoing experience, a red-blooded adventure that takes the elements of it’s genre seriously. Many films have matched it’s success in dollar amounts but none has had the cultural impact. It has become part of our language.  Like The Wizard of Oz, it propels us on a journey of such joy and imagination and has worked it’s way so firmly into our popular imagination that we can hardly imagine our culture without them.

Best Actor

Richard Dreyfuss (
The Goodbye Girl)
The Nominees: Woody Allen (Annie Hall), Richard Burton (Equus), Marcello Mastroianni (A Special Day), John Travolta (Saturday Night Fever)

John Travolta (
Saturday Night Fever)
My Nominees:
Woody Allen (Annie Hall), Richard Dreyfuss (Close Encounters of the Third Kind)


If Richard Dreyfuss weren’t such a good actor he could probably get by on likability.  He has a unique personality and a particular way of carrying himself that makes him one of the most appealing actors of his generation.  He reminds me of Jack Lemmon in that he represents us guys who aren’t born with he-man strength or chiseled good looks, he just seems like a regular guy.

In the 1970’s Dreyfuss did his best work, first in the role of Curt Henderson in George Lucas’ American Graffiti, then in Steven Spielberg’s first two mega-hits Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  He also received his only Oscar, in the adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl. as Elliot Garfield, a struggling actor who sublets an apartment from a friend who vacated without telling his girlfriend or her daughter who were staying with him.  The situation and the dialogue between Elliot and Paula (Marsha Mason) are classic Neil Simon but the film is fatally predictable.  From the first moment we meet them, we start counting off the minutes until the two fall in love.  When they eventually do fall in love I just wasn’t convinced.

Elliot is a nice guy but Dreyfuss’ performance is uneven and he is given quirks, like eating granola wheat germ and playing the guitar in the nude. These thing feel written.  I actually think that his performance in Close Encounters (also released in ’77) is much better, but was overlooked probably because the academy wrote it off as just a movable piece in a special effects movie.

At the time, Dreyfuss was the youngest recipient of the Best Actor prize (he was 29) and later he admitted the he felt it came too early.  I think he’s right, I think he peaked too early and the rest of his career may have suffered.  In the decade that would follow he would continue to prove that he was a good actor but he never again reached the height that he had in nineteen seventy-seven.

My choice for Best Actor has had a far more uneven career.  John Travolta made a name for himself on television as Vinnie Barbarino on the sitcom “Welcome Back Kotter” but left the show to pursue a movie career that started off promising and then had a long, lifeless mid-section before coming back around in the mid-90s.  His first stop after television was the film for which he will always be remembered, John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever, a messy, dated dance movie centered by Travolta’s magnificent performance.

In Saturday Night Fever he plays Tony Manero who, like Vinnie Barbarino, is a none-too-bright kid from Brooklyn who possesses an over-inflated sense of himself and has little ambition.  But Tony is a lot more serious, at 19 his life is sort of aimless.  He works in a paint store, he hangs around with a bunch of sex-starved knuckleheads and gets little respect at home.  At home his life is spelled out in his noisy Italian-American family.  His mother complains constantly and his father mercilessly criticizes him.  When Tony gets a four dollar raise, his unemployed father cruelly tells him “Four dollars? You know what four dollars buys today? It don’t even buy three dollars!”

There is little in Tony’s Brooklyn neighborhood that gives him the promise of a better future, except for the fact that he dances like a dream.  His entire week is spent in anticipation of Saturday night down at the local discotech The 2001 Odyssey where he does the one thing he does best.  He even dresses the part in his Italian platforms, his polyester shirt, his tight-fitting bellbottoms, and his hair – which he perfects like an artist- he is an actor getting ready for a show.  Director Badham doesn’t waste a single shot on Tony’s dress ritual, especially the close-up as he swivels his hips while pulling up his zipper.

Stepping out to the 2001 affords Tony the kind of approval that is missing in the rest of his life.  In the swirl of neon and the pulsing rhythm of The Bee Gees (the soundtrack is phenomenal) he is in his world, a star in his spotlight.  The look of the Disco is crucial, the production design by Charles Bailey (who was also the art director on The Exorcist) makes the place vibrate with pulsing neon lights and a lighted, colored dance floor and the addition of fog that give the dancers sort of an ethereal quality.  The look of the dance club is important because it has to look like a place that Tony would be eager to get to.

This is Tony’s safe haven, it is his moment, he is in the spotlight.  The guys want to be him and the girls want to be with him.  Compared with the ignorant buffoons that Tony hangs around with, he is far more thoughtful, he uses a defensive wall to hide a deep insecurity.  What we get from Tony is that he is the kind of kid who is always waiting for something.  We can see in his eyes that he knows something bigger awaits him but he isn’t sure what that is.

The discotechque is holding a competition and for his partner he chooses a high-class girl Stephanie (Kathy Lee Gorney) who thinks he’s just a lunk-headed kid, especially after he forces himself on her and she sizes up right away, “You live with your parents, you hang with your buddies and on Saturday nights you burn it all off at 2001 Odyssey. You’re a cliche. You’re nowhere, goin’ no place.”  There is a deep hurt in his eyes that tells us that’s he’s heard this before.  We remember those words later during a beautiful scene when he explains his knowledge of the Brooklyn Bridge.  She is genuinely impressed, “You know a lot about that bridge, don’t you?”, she says.  The bridge, on it way out of his neighborhood into Manhattan, is his escape.

I love those moments and the moments of simple observation in Tony’s life.  I just wish that Badham had the confidence to just stay with him.  The weakness of the film is that it is loaded with unnecessary scenes, unnecessary characters and unnecessary half-developments.  There is another girl in the picture, Annette, a girl whom everyone knows is easy and while she is desperately in love with Tony, he has nothing to do with her. I don’t like the character of Annette, she seems thrown into the story to be spat on and she never develops a behavior that would warrant that kind of reaction.  I am also confused by the presence of Tony’s older brother Frank, a priest who imparts some half-hearted advice but he is underwritten and abruptly drops out of the film.  I also skip through the scenes involving the suicide of Tony’s friend Bobby C, a moment that brings the film to a complete stop.

These scenes and these characters clunk up the film’s narrative.  I wish the film were slimmer, omitting the needless scenes and the needless characters and just focused on Tony’s ambitions.  The movie is a nice portrait of a misguided kid with passion who changes and grows over the course of the story.  He is a kid with talent, with ambition and heart.

Best Actress

Diane Keaton (Annie Hall)
The Nominees: Anne Bancroft (The Turning Point), Jane Fonda (Julia), Shirley MacLaine (The Turning Point), Marsha Mason (The Goodbye Girl)

Diane Keaton (Annie Hall)
y Nominees: Shelley Duvall (3 Women), Maja Komorowska (A Woman’s Decision), Sissy Spacek (3 Women), Lily Tomlin (The Late Show)


Diane Keaton has a smile that is as cheerful and as happy as a spring day. It covers her whole face and when I see it I believe that she is truly happy. I have been watching her for years and what has always appealed to me is how real she seems. There is no movie star phoniness there, no Hollywood shallowness, just a person, lovely, sensitive and intelligent. She says she is a difficult person to get to know but in her best roles, she reveals a certain vulnerability, not pitiful but one that endears her to you. She could play both dramatic and comedic roles but I think the latter suited her best because it allows her to put all of her best gifts on display.

In nineteen seventy-seven, she got to play both dramatic and comedic. The dramatic was in Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Judith Rossner’s novel Looking for Mr. Goodbar in which she plays a self destructive teacher who spends her evenings in singles bars looking for men to sexually abuse her and eventually finds one who kills her. That movie was such a depressing downer because Keaton was so wrong for the part. Who wants to see this delightful performer in a situation like that?

The comedic film was in the title role of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, the film that not only brought her an Oscar but will be her legacy. She plays Annie, who comes east from the tiny Wisconsin town of Chippewa Falls with aspirations on becoming a singer. She is alone until she meets Alvy Singer (Allen), a nervous Jewish comedian who spends his time whining about anything and everything and who fills his spare time with books about death and repeated viewings of Marcel Ophuls’ holocaust documentary The Sorrow and the Pity.

Alvy is an intellectual but Annie is not and she complains that he doesn’t think she’s very smart. She grows tired of his constant criticism of every facet of her life, everything from former boyfriends down to the fact that she washes her face with black soap. She gets tired of having sex because Alvy treats sex as if it were the air that he breathes. Eventually she breaks up with him but then calls him at three in the morning to come to her apartment because she wants him back. What is clear is that the two are opposites but she is attracted to the fact that she has never met anyone like him and vice versa.

What we see in Annie is a transformation. At the beginning, she is scatterbrained, wearing a tangle of mismatched clothing with her large floppy hat, to her tight fitting vest, her long tie (given to her by her Grammy) to her baggy pants – she looks as if she should be juggling. Her voice fumbles and she giggles when she says things that she admits are a bit empty-headed. Yet, she grows and her unformed singing voice is shaky at first but eventually improves. Her manner of dress becomes more consistent and her intellect begins to flower. Most of this comes through her relationship with Alvy, who is smart, teaches her about things and makes her more confident. When Annie becomes more confident, she also becomes more independent. She realizes that she has a mind and a body and a personal style that are all her own and that staying with Alvy would only stifle that. Their breakup is not filled with any hostility, it is sad but understandable.

Annie is a very specific person. There is a vulnerability and an insecurity about her that makes her seem unpolished. She has moments that are pure and funny like the moment when she asks Alvy a question that she knows is inappropriate and smiles while she rolling her eyes, admitting “Oh dear, what a dumb thing to say” but letting it roll off with “La-dee-dah La-dee dah la la”. She has a way of beginning sentences that end in nonsense as she loses track of what she was going to say. At one point, she tells Alvy a story about a relative’s horrible death but laughs inappropriately as if the story where suppose to be funny. She smiles and laughs and giggles, as if the kid inside her hasn’t quite left her.

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