LIFE WITHOUT OSCAR: 1977 and 1978

Posted by · 9:58 pm · September 22nd, 2010

Catch up with the idea behind this series here.

Hey, that “Star Wars” thing was nominated for Best Picture in 1977. The blockbuster game-changer was beaten by the romantic comedy game-changer “Annie Hall,” in what has to be one of my favorite Best Picture wins ever. It would be 21 years before another comedy won the top prize in “Shakespeare in Love,” which is another one of my favorite Best Picture wins. More good comedies please!

Sir Stevie Spielberg earned his first Oscar nomination for directing “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” but saw the film lose out on a Best Picture nod to “The Goodbye Girl.” That film earned Richard Dreyfuss the honor of becoming the youngest Best Actor winner until Adrien Brody, decades later.

“The Deer Hunter” bummed everyone out enough in 1978 to take home Best Picture and Director statues. The only real competition came from “Coming Home,” as anti-Vietnam films were suddenly back in vogue.

1977 was also Bob Hope’s last turn as Master of Ceremonies (his eighteenth). No more quips like this one, “Tonight we set aside petty differences, forget old feuds, and start new ones.” Luckily, 1978 was the first of many Johnny Carson hosting gigs with gems like, “I see a lot of new faces. Especially on the old faces.”

But here’s what had to watch from home.

1977 – “Killer of Sheep” (Charles Burnett)

“Killer of Sheep” never had a chance with the Oscars because it never had a theatrical release. Charles Burnett made it as his thesis work for UCLA at a cost of less than $10,000, over the course of three years. The finished product was good enough to screen at the Berlin and Toronto Film Festivals, but issues with the music rights kept it from getting a theatrical release until Steven Soderbergh shepherded a project to raise the necessary $150,000 and restore the prints. I, along with most people, finally got a chance to see the lost classic in theatres back in 2007.

A full nine years before Spike Lee’s, “She’s Gotta Have It,” Burnett’s film represents a time when virtually no African-American independent cinema was being made outside of blaxploitation pictures. His neo-realist style and focus on the day to day life of one poverty-stricken Los Angeles family serves as a fascinating historical document even outside of the terrific filmmaking. Part of the reason those music rights were so expensive is because Burnett insisted on the film being an aural history of African American popular music. The Dinah Washington song that plays during the slow dance picture above couldn’t have been cheap, but the effect of that scene is priceless.

Like many other films spotlighted here, the plot is thin and inconsequential. Our hero, Stan, goes about his daily routine as a husband, father, and slaughterhouse worker. Occasionally, we check in on other members of his family or community as Burnett has no problem letting seemingly fragmented moments slowly piece together the puzzle of his narrative. The languid pace is a hallmark of Burnett’s influences, and his film has gone on to inspire everyone from David Gordon Green (directly aping this visual in “George Washington”) to Mos Def (who used a still from the movie as his latest album’s cover art).

Burnett shot and edited the movie himself, showcasing a wide-ranging talent that has never quite matched the feats achieved here and unfortunately been relegated to mostly TV work these days. Perhaps in his case, the old adage that limitation breeds creativity was never more true. Regardless, “Killer of Sheep” stands up as a poetic, beautiful ode to a community otherwise completely overlooked in the medium.

1978 – “Halloween” (John Carpenter)

I don’t do horror movies. In strictly general terms, I don’t like to put terrifying images into my brain and rarely is the decision to do so justified by the exceptions. Sometime during my third or fourth year at film school, they played a print of this on Halloween night and the social event was too big to turn down. I may have covered my sensitive eyes a few times, but I watched the whole thing with a raucous crowd of film nerds. And I was scared shitless.

John Carpenter had already directed two feature films, despite being just shy of his 30th birthday, and each were deeply rooted genre affairs. Cutting his teeth with sci-fi on “Dark Star” and then executing action on a shoestring budget with “Assault on Precinct 13,” he turned his attention to horror and the concept of ‘pure evil’. I’m not sure Carpenter has anything to say about the idea other than it makes for a decidedly unstoppable villain, but it makes perfect sense in the film he’s crafted. A film that operates exclusively on minimalism from every angle. Stripped of nuance, it’s virginal good vs. unshakeable evil.

A sensationally conceived opening sequence sets the tone and the feeling of dread never lets up. Partly because of the milquetoast, suburban setting. Partly because of the voyeuristic, methodical camerawork. Partly because of the grainy, high contrast cinematography. But mostly because of that score. Each example is an exercise in rigid restraint that is all but lost on today’s horror filmmakers. It’s not hard to have a character looking around nervously, fade down the entire soundtrack for a moment, have a killer jump out accompanied by a cymbal crash and get a response from the audience. It will be momentary though. Have the killer consistently present in the shadows, occasionally revealing himself slowly in the background and the response will last the whole film.

Jamie Lee Curtis became a star after her portrayal as the victimized babysitter and it’s quite clear that she has star power to spare even though she’s not required to do much other than scream and run. Donald Pleasance takes the obligatory role of explaining things/adding gravitas, but he does it well so who can complain? Michael Myers actually is only billed as “The Shape” in the credits and was played by Nick Castle, future director of “Dennis the Menace” and “Major Payne” obviously. 99% of the time, I’m looking for more in a film than just a formal exercise in terror, but “Halloween” is the real deal.

Those are my picks. What do you guys think?

[Photo: Ray Carney]
[Photo: Joe Michael]

→ 18 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Life Without Oscar

18 responses so far

  • 1 9-22-2010 at 10:15 pm

    Carson Dyle said...

    A Bridge Too Far in 77 for me. As for 78… weak year.

  • 2 9-22-2010 at 11:42 pm

    Andrew Rech said...

    For 77, Cassavetes ‘Opening Night’ is such a hurricane masterpiece to me. Gena Rowlands performance is equally on par with her work in her most well known collaboration with her late husband ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ and that is saying so so much. The titular performance of the play within the film? Yowza.

    78…hmm I can’t think anything off the top of my head that would qualify and is a real “wow” other than ‘Halloween’. Including more horror does bring in the original ‘Dawn of the Dead’ and ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’.

  • 3 9-22-2010 at 11:55 pm

    Nick Davis said...

    Killer of Sheep is an unimpeachable call here, even with stiff competition from the likes of New York New York, Opening Night, and 3 Women… though I suspect you’re not a big fan of at least two of those.

  • 4 9-23-2010 at 12:31 am

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Haven’t seen any of them.

  • 5 9-23-2010 at 1:46 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    For years, I was desperate to see “Killer of Sheep” but had no way of accessing it — the BFI finally came to my rescue early this year (with a free DVD, to boot), and it was worth the wait. Staggering.

    As Nick says, 1977 is a very painful year in which to play this game — I’d immediately suggest “New York, New York” and “3 Women” too, both being among my favourites from their respective directors. (Maybe just plain favourite, in the case of Altman.) The fact that the former couldn’t even manage any craft nods — Best Original Song, for crying out loud — is especially mindblowing.

    Also for 1977: “Providence” and “The Lacemaker,” which really should have snagged Isabelle Huppert that first Oscar nomination she’s unbelievably still waiting for 33 years on.

    I won’t complain too vocally about 1978, since I can hardly improve on the Academy’s choice for Best Picture there. One of their finest hours. As was their 1977 pick, really.

  • 6 9-23-2010 at 1:49 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Hey, the Golden Globes thought that laugh riot “Driving Miss Daisy” was a comedy, so we have that.

  • 7 9-23-2010 at 4:06 am

    Glenn said...

    Loved the selection of “Halloween”. Still disappointing it didn’t get very high in Kris’ “most influential” poll. I think some people don’t realise how much of an impact that movie truly had.

    As for “Killer of Sheep”… still has never received a release down here. grrr

  • 8 9-23-2010 at 5:08 am

    James D. said...

    Killer of Sheep really perplexed me the first time I saw it. I gave it another try and loved it.

    For me, Annie Hall is the last time the Academy got it right.

  • 9 9-23-2010 at 6:16 am

    Jeorge. said...

    I’m not really much of a horror fan either, and yet both my picks this week are horror films. Weird! Anyway, for 1977 George Romero’s Martin, and for 1978 Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake.

    Oh, and Killer of Sheep really is a remarkable movie. Great choice.

  • 10 9-23-2010 at 6:32 am

    Maxim said...

    “Spielberg earned his first Oscar nomination for directing “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” but saw the film lose out on a Best Picture nod to “The Goodbye Girl.”

    Harsh but kind of true. Dreyfuss was absolutely amazing in both and deserved his win but “The Goodbye Girl” was not as strong as a film.

  • 11 9-23-2010 at 7:09 am

    Mike Smolinski said...

    Even though 1977 was an excellent year for movies — and the Academy made the right decision by honoring “Annie Hall” — it’ still disappointing that “New York, New York” came up empty (especially in the tech categories) and that Gena Rowlands and the great Joan Blondell were overlooked for “Opening Night.”

  • 12 9-23-2010 at 8:55 am

    Chris138 said...

    Not the biggest fan of horror movies either, but there are certain exceptions, and Carpenter’s “Halloween” is one of them. I wish Rob Zombie’s remake didn’t exist.

  • 13 9-23-2010 at 9:22 am

    JJ said...

    I think 1978 was the weakest year of the 70’s. I have no movie with over 3.5 stars out of 4 or 4 out of 4. None.

  • 14 9-23-2010 at 9:37 pm

    Mark Kratina said...

    It got three nominations in minor categories, but I’ll throw Superman out for best film of 1978. Still a classic.

  • 15 9-23-2010 at 11:05 pm

    Glenn said...

    JJ, how many movies have you SEEN from 1978? Days of Heaven, Newsfront, Halloween, Interiors, Dawn of the Dead and Midnight Express are all 3.5 or 4/4 films, I reckon.

  • 16 9-24-2010 at 7:27 am

    JJ said...

    My ratings for them:
    Days of Heaven – high 3. Found it boring enough for 3, not 3.5.
    Didnt see Newsfront.
    Halloween – solid 3.
    Interiors – 3, depressing.
    Dawn of the Dead – 2.5.
    Midnight Express – 3.

    I have about 10 3 stars and a bunch of 2.5. But I found no film to be — beginning to end, overwhelmingly — 3.5 or 4 worthy.

  • 17 10-06-2010 at 6:21 pm

    ChrisP said...

    Not a big fan of Killer of Sheep – It didn’t strike a cord with me, but I understand the praise for it.

    For ’77 – Short Eyes which has an amazing Curtis Mayfield soundtrack, a terrifice performance from Bruce Davison and makes you feel trapped the entire time you’re watching it. Waaay better than anything that came out in ’77 *cough* Star Wars *cough*

    For ’78 – The Deer Hunter deserved the win. But I love Straight Time, Interiors, Knife in the Head, Fingers, and of course, Dawn of the Dead

  • 18 12-08-2010 at 12:50 pm

    Keil Shults said...

    1977: (I still need to see Killer of Sheep)

    3 Women


    Straight Time
    Gates of Heaven (probably not eligible that year)