Armchair Oscars – 1981

Best Picture

Chariots of Fire (Directed by Hugh Hudson)
The Nominees: Atlantic City, On Golden Pond, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Reds

Raiders of the Lost Ark (Directed by Steven Spielberg)
My Nominees: 
Atlantic City (Louis Malle), Reds (Warren Beatty), On Golden Pond (Mark Rydell), Arthur (Steve Gordon), Ragtime (Milos Foreman), My Dinner With Andre (Louis Malle)


For years to come, Oscar historians will scratch their heads trying to figure out what the academy voters saw in Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire, a watch-checker of a movie about two runners, one a Christian and the other a Jew, competing in the 1924 Olympics. It became a critical favorite, but most regular moviegoers didn’t get it.  The only truly memorable thing about the film was Vangelis’ rousing score, but even that has become so parodied that the initial impact is long gone. Chariots of Fire may be the only Best Picture winner in history whose chances were boosted by its score.

Chariots of Fire was an upset because up until the award was handed out, many thought that the winner would be Warren Beatty’s Reds, a much more deserving choice, but even that film has gone by the wayside and today is rarely seen.  The same cannot be said of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, the most popular film of the year and one of the most beloved films in history.

Raiders of the Lost Ark may seem shallow but if you look deep into the origins of Steven Spielberg’s work you can probably find a personal agenda creeping into the sides of even his least works. Raiders of the Lost Ark isn’t one of his lesser films, but one might be inclined to think it is his most shallow. I don’t believe that’s true, because beneath his bone-jangling action scenes and snappy wit there is a level of dark urgency. When this film is mentioned there are usually a lot of knowing smiles and no one doubts that it is fun, but an in-depth discussion is a rare thing. I think I understand why. Raiders can be an easy to write-off as a cheesecake action movie, a lark that Spielberg dreamed up between, Close Encounters and E.T. I think the film is just as deep, where E.T. was Spielberg’s personal observation about divorce and Close Encounters displayed his desire to not be alone, Raiders taps into a childhood love of Saturday Matinee Serials and subconsciously to his hatred of Nazis.

I think that the movie is far more intelligent than most give it credit for. This is one of the most well-paced action movies I can remember. It takes the time to build a story we care about, unlike most Hollywood product that seems to be playing Beat the Clock with the audience’s presumed case of attention deficit disorder. The first hour of the film is a build up long before we see the Ark. That time contains the search for the artifact to find the artifact, a gold medallion of which the bad guys only have a diagram. Most movies spend five minutes of discussion time before the movie’s prize is found (witness Stargate in which the hero walked in and wrote the solution on a blackboard). I rarely see a movie in which the director is willing to devote this much build-up.

I am relieved the see a hero who is intelligent and fallible. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), a professor who moonlights as an adventuring archaeologist digging in caves for lost artifacts (or is it the other way around?). Casting is important here because the role needed to go to a likable guy who can take it on the chin and make us believe that he isn’t the center of the action. Harrison Ford broke away from Han Solo by playing a man who is a bit more mature and worn-down. The movie introduces Indiana as a college professor and he is allowed to think rather than just act as the token for action sequences, even though he gets into more scrapes than any action hero that I can think of. He gets punched, beaten, shot, burned, dragged and clipped on the jaw. He is nearly crushed by a boulder, skewered with arrows, bitten by snakes, blown up, hacked by a propeller, crushed between two cars and nearly falls to his death while hanging by his fingernails over a bottomless pit.

For me, the movie fulfills two requirements: First, It has action scenes that mean something and don’t feel tacked on and when it is over I feel that something has been accomplished. Of course this movie is all in the journey. Consider how Spielberg allows the movie to jump from one grandiose action sequence to the next. Beginning with the scene in which Indy is down in the Well of Souls surrounded by snakes follows with a mummy attack, a fight on a Nazi Flying Wing and the famous truck chase. For at least an hour the movie doesn’t slow down.

My second requirement is that the movie have something at stake. For that, the movie has Indiana chasing The Ark of the Covenant before the Nazi’s can get their hands on it. We are told with some dread that “An army which carries the ark before it is invincible”. We know how horrible and efficient the Nazis were and we know what is at stake if they can become invincible. They have always been the favorite villains in the movies because most of us share a similar hatred toward Hitler and his thugs. We want to see them punished and the movie doesn’t let us down.

Searching for the Ark, the Nazis understand what is achieved if they obtain it, but they don’t understand its power. The Ark is portrayed in this movie as an object surrounded by death. Through the dialogue, Spielberg creates a grim tone around this object so we always know how dangerous it really is. From the moment that the movie calls the Ark into question we are told that “The bible speaks of The Ark leveling mountains” and “Death has always surrounded it”. Consider then that every time we see the ark in the movie, it is surrounded by motifs of death: rats, snakes, Nazis. There is an eerie scene in which it sits in a cargo hold in a crate embossed with the swastika and from the inside it burns the symbol on the outside. All of this more or less prepares us for what for ultimately happens when the Ark is opened and the spirits punish the Nazis for their blasphemy. There is a level of gruesome joy with which Spielberg and executive producer George Lucas dispatch their villains.

The Nazis in this film are
portrayed in the best tradition of great films of the past. They are portrayed as shallow and one-dimensional. We see Colonel Dietrich (Wolfe Kauler), a boot-lackey of Hitler who at one point addresses “Only our mission for the fuehrer matters” and stays focused on his mission to get The Ark back to Berlin. And there is the black coated Nazi Gestapo officer (Ronald Lacey) who all but smacks his lips as he tortures the heroine. The major villain however has a bit more character. His name is Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman), a French archaeologist and Indy’s chief rival. He is in old adversary of Indy, an opportunist who on-ups him at every turn.

But as much depth as Raiders has, I must observe that the movie is just plain fun. There are action sequences here that have never been surpassed even a quarter of a century later. The movie ups the action by taking the scenes one step further, he creates and intelligent action movie in which we understand what is happening at all times and what is at stake.

Best Actor

Henry Fonda (
On Golden Pond)
The Nominees: Warren Beatty (Reds), Burt Lancaster (Atlantic City), Dudley Moore (Arthur), Paul Newman (Absence of Malice)

John Travolta (Blow Out)
My Nominees:
Warren Beatty (Reds), John Belushi (Continental Divide), Henry Fonda (On Golden Pond), Harrison Ford (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Jeremy Irons (The French Lieutenant’s Woman), Burt Lancaster (Atlantic City), Walter Matthau (The First Monday in October), Dudley Moore (Arthur), Paul Newman (Absence of Malice), Treat Williams (Prince of the City)


Henry Fonda’s career spanned half a century, but it wasn’t until the final year of his life that the academy finally rewarded him with an Oscar.  In Mark Rydell’s adaptation of Ernest Thompson’s stage play On Golden Pond, he played Norman Thayler, a crotchety, foul-mouthed old coot who has an opinion about everything but bottles up his emotions so that he seems to feel nothing.  Now in his 80s, he has returned to Golden Pond with his wife Ethel (Best Actress winner Katharine Hepburn) and his daughter Chelsea (played by daughter Jane) whom he hasn’t seen in years.

The center of the film deals with Norman’s reconnection with this daughter and, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you can see that the movie is really about the connection between Henry and Jane.  It is touching to watch these two share their one and only film together, and it is touching to see Henry Fonda close the curtain on his distinguished career with such a lovely film (despite the unnecessary overload of four-letter words).

Yet, I have to wonder if the academy voters would have been as thrilled with Fonda’s performance in On Golden Pond if it had come in the middle of his career. This was clearly a sympathy vote and an apology for having overlooked him for films like The Grapes of Wrath, 12 Angry Men, Mister Roberts, The Lady Eve, Fail Safe and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. I think that the voters knew this was going to be his last film and wanted to reward him before the moment got away.

Nineteen Eighty-One was an unusually good year for actors in leading roles (look at my number of nominees) but sadly, some of the best weren’t even nominated. For example, my choice for Best Actor, John Travolta gave arguably his best performance in Brian De Palma’s great film noir thriller Blow Out. Travolta took the role because he had wanted a film that would focus on his acting rather than on his sex appeal. So, he re-teamed with De Palma, who had previously directed him in Carrie, and was even paired with the same co-star, Nancy Allen.

In Blow Out, Travolta plays Jack Terri, a skilled soundman who works on the fringes of the film industry providing sound effects for bad horror movies. This is the best work he can get because long ago, he worked for the police, wiring undercover officers for sting operations until one of his wire taps malfunctioned and got a man killed. Now, he puts his skills to work in the arena of Z-Grade slasher flicks – the kind where sorority girls dance naked in their dorm rooms while a mad slasher stalks them with a butcher knife.

His destiny changes one night when he is out recording sounds for a movie. Standing on a foot bridge, near a road he witnesses a car have a blow out and careen through a guardrail and into the lake. He dives in to save the passengers and finds two people in the car, one is a man who is already dead and the other is a woman that he pulls to safety. Later, in the hospital, the police aggressively question him about the incident but they seem less interested in his facts than in pushing him toward the story they want him to tell. A government official tells him that the man in the car was a highly respected presidential candidate and the girl was part of a plot to blackmail him (comparisons to Chappaquiddick are inevitable).

Jack is told to keep quiet about the story and forget about the girl. He is warned that exposing the true facts about the accident would embarrass the man’s family, but Jack suspects that a cover up may be at work.  He meets the girl that he rescued, named Sally (Nancy Allen), a sweet but none-too-bright floozy and suspects that someone may try to kill her.

Despite advice to let the case go, Jack becomes obsessed, playing his tape over and over and thinks he hears a gunshot right before the crucial blow out.  Later a sleazy photographer named Manny (Dennis Franz) comes forward with photographs that end up in Newsweek and, in a great scene, Jack cuts the photos out of the magazine and makes them into a flip-book that he films one frame at a time then adds his audio track over it.  What develops is a perfect home movie (reminiscent of the Zapruder film) that clearly shows gunfire coming from the bushes on the other side of the road.  He also comes to realize that the reason that Sally was in the car was due to a bizarre blackmail scheme.

The story, however, is much larger than Jack realizes.  There are forces at work to keep Jack’s tape from reaching the news. The worst is a slimy clean-up man named Burke (John Lithgow) who is killing prostitutes all over Philadelphia to plant hysteria over a serial killer in order to have a convenient cover when he eliminates Sally. Jack knows she is in danger but knows nothing about Burke, who has broken into his recording studio and erased all of his tapes but fortunately missed the crucial tape that Jack had hidden in the ceiling panel.

Jack meets a journalist who agrees to meet with him at a secret location to get the tape – the only copy that he still has. Unfortunately, their conversation is overheard by Burke who has tapped Jack’s phone. What happens next I must leave for you to discover except to say that the films third act is borne out of the story, out of the events that have come before and never feel forced or tacked on.

What Travolta creates in Jack Terri is a classic film noir hero, a guy who gets into a situation way over his head, tries to protect a doomed woman and won’t take the good advice to leave well enough alone. Jack tries again and again to do the right thing, to correct an injustice but there are forces at work that want to prevent him from breaking the conspiracy. Buried under that urgency is, Jack’s determination to keep from repeating his past mistakes.  Years before, he failed to save an officer when his wire tap failed. Now, he tries to prevent Sally from falling into the same trap.

There’s an effective moodiness to Travolta’s performance, he isn’t totally likable, but he isn’t off-putting either. He is a guy haunted by personal demons and the urgency to do the right thing.  He thinks that he is onto a simple cover-up, but discovers too late that the real story is larger than he had thought.  His final moment is absolutely perfect, as he has finally found the perfect scream for his film, a scream that comes from real life.  This expert sound man covers his ears and can listen no more.

Best Actress

Katherine Hepburn (On Golden Pond)
The Nominees: Diane Keaton (Reds), Marsha Mason (Only When I Laugh), Susan Sarandon (Atlantic City), Meryl Streep (The French Lieutenant’s Woman)

Sissy Spacek (Raggedy Man)
y Nominees: Sally Field (Absence of Malice), Diane Keaton (Reds), , Susan Sarandon (Atlantic City), Meryl Streep (The French Lieutenant’s Woman)


With a fourth Best Actress win for her performance as Ethel Thayler in On Golden Pond, Katharine Hepburn set a record for the most Oscars won by any actor – a record that still stands today. Yet, I have never been a huge fan of any of the four performances that brought her those Oscars. Three of those films featured her playing wives who suffer through difficult, stubborn husbands. She suffered Peter O’Toole in The Lion in Winter, Spencer Tracey in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and finally Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond. When you consider that she became famous for playing strong, independent women, these roles seem to go against that image.

Ethel Thayler is my least favorite of her four Oscar winning performances. The role, which had been created on broadway by Frances Sternhagen, wasn’t really a character that Hepburn could build on. Ethel is frank and honest and holds her own against her crabby husband Norman (Henry Fonda) but there really isn’t any special about her beyond that.

With so much support behind Henry Fonda for what was rumored to be (and was) his final screen performance, the academy decided to reward both Fonda and Hepburn. It can be assumed that sentimentality carried Hepburn to her final Oscar, but I think that it may have also come from the fact that this year they had nominated four other performances they weren’t overly fond of.

Certainly, they weren’t fond of my choice, Sissy Spacek for her wonderful work as a small-town telephone operator in Jack Fisk’s little-seen Raggedy Man – she wasn’t even nominated. I gave Spacek my Armchair Oscar for 1976, but overlooked her Oscar winning performance as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter the previous year. Carrie White gave her the role of a girl who is wrapped up in insecurity and fear. Loretta Lynn had put her through the machinations of a musical biopic. Raggedy Man was a little more open. The plot is loose enough to allow Spacek to play Nita Longley in a more relaxed, natural way.

The film takes place in Edna, Texas around 1944. Nita is the town telephone operator. She is divorced from a man who was unfaithful and doesn’t know what ever became of him after he went into the service. She operates the switchboard out of her house, and is tethered to it night and day. It isn’t a job that allows her much of a living wage for her and her two sons, Harry and Henry (Henry Thomas and Carry Hollis, Jr.). Nita tries to get her boss, Mr. Rigby (R.G. Armstrong), to allow her some secretarial work that won’t keep her tied to the switchboard night and day, but he won’t budge. He constantly reminds her that there is a war on and that the phone lines need to be open at all times. Privately, he knows he has her over a barrel because he thinks she doesn’t have the gumption to quit.

One night a sailor (Eric Roberts) comes by the house, asking to use the telephone. His name is Tom, a nice fellow with a pleasing voice and a handsome face, but is heartbroken when he calls his girl and finds that she is engaged to someone else. Nita feels pity for him, and after she finds that he has spent the rainy night sleeping on her front porch, offers him a place to stay while he is on leave. He is good with the boys, he plays games with them, talks to them, takes them to their first picture show and to a carnival.

It isn’t long before Tom and Nita begin a slow, tender romance. However, his presence in the house draws the gossip of the town, especially when two elderly old bats walk by the house and see Tom standing shirtless in her doorway and the boys marching around in the yard announcing “Heil Hitler!” (they got it from the picture show). Mr. Rigby complains that the people in town need to know that they can depend on her, and doesn’t consider that the town telephone operator hears all the gossip that runs back and forth.

I would have been content for the story just to stay with those elements but I think it goes overboard with a tacky subplot involving two troublemakers (William Sanderson and Tracey Walter) who get into a fight with Teddy in a bar and later try to rape Nita in her house. Plus, there’s the issue of the raggedy man himself, a dark figure in a long coat and a wide-brimmed hat who walks around town with his lawnmower (he creeps around like something out of a Stephen King novel). If you take these characters out of the film, the story wouldn’t lose a single thing.

Raggedy Man was directed by Jack Fisk, Sissy Spacek’s husband then and now, and it is a perfect showcase that allows her to really build a character. In her earlier performances in Carrie and Coal Miner’s Daughter, the characters were more or less locked in, but this film allows her more room to breathe. When we meet Nita, we know that there is more to her then we realize. Those around her seem to makes assumptions, the two lowlifes assume that because her husband left that she is easy. The town gossips assume that Nita is allowing this handsome young sailor to shack up and that something unwholesome is going on. And Mr. Rigby assumes that she won’t have the gumption to leave her job, that she doesn’t really understand that a war is going on.


What they miss is the fact that Nita is very smart. They miss the point that she is resourceful and perceptive. Through the switchboard, she hears all that goes on in town, especially the anguish that goes on when families lose their sons or brothers or husbands or fathers in the war. She is a great listener (both my Best Actor and Best Actress choices for 1981 play characters who hear for a living). She understands the gravity of her situation, of not being able to make a decent wage to raise her sons alone. She knows she is better than the job that she is tethered to, but is bullied into staying with it because her boss won’t allow her to move on. But she isn’t caged by anyone’s assumptions. She tells Mr. Rigby “What I do is nobody else’s business”.


Yet, she is more than just the gravity of her situation. She has moments of joy and happiness like the happy day that she has just to herself when Teddy takes the boys to the carnival. She sweeps the floor, happily dancing to The Andrews Sisters “Rum and Coca Cola” and standing on her bed holding up a dress in front of her to see how it looks. She has moments with Teddy that are tender and beautiful, none better than a moment when he gives her a pair of rayon stockings that he bought her at the carnival or the moment when they share a sweet slow dance.

I think that if the movie would have stayed in the character it might have done better and Spacek might have gotten a nomination. This is the best performance of he distinguished career because it shows notes that she had not previously been able to show. Here she creates a complete human being, smart, ambitions, frustrated, romantic, responsible and a pleasure to get to know.

Home | 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 @