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Oscar Rule Change: Ten Best Lists

Oscar Rule Change: Ten Best Lists

A film historian of the 60s and 70s sent me his best guesses at what ten best Oscar lists would have been between 1967 and 1979. What’s fascinating, assuming he’s making reasonably inside-ballpark calls here, is that adding five sometimes improves the choices, and often does not. But while my write-in academic knows a lot about the period he’s writing about, we can’t help but see these movies now as their standing has changed over time. As examples, Cool Hand Luke, The Battle of Algiers, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind all boast more stature now than they did when they came out. Bottom line though, the Academy had more quality films to choose from then than they do now. We will find out soon enough whether this change is for the best.

original nominees
In the Heat of the Night [winner]
Bonnie and Clyde
Doctor Dolittle
The Graduate
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
Cool Hand Luke
In Cold Blood
The Dirty Dozen
Two for the Road

Notes: I think Warners would have worked and lobbied hard for its costly roadshow CAMELOT (which did receive five nominations, ultimately winning three Oscars). After all, CAMELOT was a personal Jack L. Warner production, and while Seven Arts had purchased the studio, J.L. still had his office on the lot; also, the film needed all the post-season help it could get. COOL HAND LUKE and IN COLD BLOOD were likely finalists in the Best Picture race, as they were among the top studio films of the year. THE DIRTY DOZEN was Metro’s top non-roadshow grosser of the ’60s, and was grudgingly respected as something new; besides, DOZEN producer Ken Hyman had just taken the production reins at Warners. Donen’s TWO FOR THE ROAD was a well-respected picture, for which Fox would have pushed hard for year-end honors, particularly with ten possible spots.

I would point out that Universal (able to muster relatively few Best Picture nominees for much of the ’50s and almost all of the ’60s), might theoretically have managed to push its relatively successful roadshow THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (which got seven nominations, winning one Oscar) over WB’s mostly stillborn CAMELOT. But Warners was far better at this kind of game than U.

original nominees
Oliver! [winner]
Funny Girl
The Lion in Winter
Rachel, Rachel
Romeo & Juliet
2001: A Space Odyssey
The Battle of Algiers
The Odd Couple
Rosemary’s Baby

Notes: 2001 — one of the most egregious Best Picture nominee omissions in Academy history — is a no-brainer with ten spots on the ballot. I do believe that with more open spots, the powerful BATTLE OF ALGIERS could well have received a Best Picture nomination (Pontecorvo was nominated for Best Director, the Pontecorvo/Solinas script got a Best Screenplay nomination). A well-liked (and monster hit) comedy like THE ODD COUPLE was just the sort of popular movie that might make the cut if there were ten spots on the ballot; in a different way — and much different genre — so was ROSEMARY’S BABY, which might have become the first horror film to nab an Best Picture nomination. As Fox was probably the most fanatical and best organized studio back in the day in terms of procuring major Oscar nominations for hapless roadshow productions — it got a Best Picture nomination for the wretched DOCTOR DOLITTLE, and two years later, managed to get another one for the somewhat slightly better HELLO, DOLLY! — there’s every reason to believe that given the opportunity of five additional spots, it would have succeeded getting a Best Picture nomination for Wise’s flop STAR! (which did pick up seven other nominations).

Aside from these, there would also have been very strong campaigning for Metro’s roadshow THE SHOES OF THE FISHERMAN (which opened to weak reviews and slow business), and if Fox weren’t over-preoccupied with its costly Wise picture, it could have lobbied for its well regarded hit PLANET OF THE APES. BULLITT had just opened, was a big hit and was seen as something new — it also might have figured into the mix. I’d love to imagine that YELLOW SUBMARINE could have made the cut, but I don’t think the interest was there.

original nominees
Midnight Cowboy [winner]
Anne of the Thousand Days
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Hello, Dolly!
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
The Secret of Santa Vittoria
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
True Grit

Notes: This was one of the most difficult years to break down. The nature of the business was changing in ’69 and the quality and character of the films was highly variable. I think the Academy, having somewhat embraced the script and supporting performances of BOB & CAROL with nominations, would have been willing to nominate it for Best Picture. JEAN BRODIE was a quality drama being lobbied hard by Fox for Maggie Smith’s Oscar-worthy (ultimately Oscar-winning) performance — it isn’t a stretch to imagine it as a Best Picture nominee. SANTA VITTORIA because MIDNIGHT COWBOY aside, UA was having the worst year in its history in ’69, and it was very strongly pushing its year-end pictures — this was a far better Oscar bet than BATTLE OF BRITAIN. THEY SHOOT HORSES is a logical addition to the list — it received nine other nominations (three for acting, Best Director, Best Screenplay). TRUE GRIT was a big popular success, with that wonderful Wayne performance.

Back in ’69, Metro was vigorously promoting its GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS remake, but despite the film’s outstanding Peter O’Toole performance, they didn’t really have a picture to sell. Anyway, the Academy already had one flop musical on this year’s list — which also tended to exclude Paramount’s costly, bawdy but mostly tone-deaf PAINT YOUR WAGON. Paramount was also talking up its successful GOODBYE, COLUMBUS as though it were THE GRADUATE revisited; the movie was okay, but not of this calibre — and neither was Fox’s JOHN AND MARY, thank you. The unspoken words here, of course, are THE WILD BUNCH and EASY RIDER, both of which received Best Screenplay nominations (the BUNCH was also nominated for its great Jerry Fielding score). I’m not sure that the BUNCH would have received a Best Picture nomination in 1969, even with ten spots. The adult-themed MIDNIGHT COWBOY was one thing, but THE WILD BUNCH alienated so many (plus it was cut, to its detriment, during its release). I also don’t believe that EASY RIDER would have gotten a nomination. [Yes, I know that both Peckinpah and Hopper were DGA nominees, but that’s not the same kind of competition.] I’m not saying the movies didn’t deserve the nominations; I’m just saying I don’t think it would have happened. A year later, two years later, would have been a different story.

original nominees
Patton [winner]
Five Easy Pieces
Love Story
I Never Sang for My Father
Little Big Man
Ryan’s Daughter
Tora! Tora! Tora!
Women in Love

Notes: I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER was a tiny critics’ picture with strong word-of-mouth and excellent nominated performances. Arthur Penn’s well-liked epic LITTLE BIG MAN would easily have found a place on an expanded list of nominees. Lean’s RYAN’S DAUGHTER was expected by many to be a Best Picture nominee in the first place; with five extra spots, it wouldn’t miss. The Fox publicists that got Best Picture nominations for DOLITTLE and DOLLY would work overtime to get TORA! — the studio’s (and Hollywood’s) most expensive movie since CLEOPATRA — a spot. Russell’s WOMEN IN LOVE is the prestige movie of the list.

THE GREAT WHITE HOPE (Fox again) might have been a dark horse in this race. WOODSTOCK, a docu like no other, could have been a novelty selection. Frank Perry’s unexpectedly popular DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE had a lot of support.

original nominees
The French Connection [winner]
A Clockwork Orange
Fiddler on the Roof
The Last Picture Show
Nicholas and Alexandra
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
Mary, Queen of Scots
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Summer of ’42
Sunday Bloody Sunday

Notes: THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS was de Sica’s best movie in years and was extremely well handled domestically by Don Rugoff’s Cinema 5, which released Z; this deeply moving Italian picture (which won the ’71 Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar) could very well have repeated the Costa-Gavras film’s feat of earning a Best Picture nomination. If Sam Spiegel’s stately/dull NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA could get a Best Picture nomination (and it remains astounding that it did — that’s a feat of DOLITTLE/READER proportions!), then there’s no reason why Wallis’ far livelier MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS couldn’t also have gotten one; its script was terribly weak, but it had two powerhouse lead performances. Altman’s McCABE & MRS. MILLER was controversial, endlessly debated and immediately influential. The nostalgic SUMMER OF ’42 was one of the big hits of the year. SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY was a great critical success if nothing else, and a groundbreaking picture; its Best Picture nomination would perfectly dovetail its Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay nominations.

Chayefsky’s very funny black comedy THE HOSPITAL was promoted strongly by UA and would not have been out of place on this list. CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, though not greatly loved by the industry, might have nabbed one of the spots. Disney’s elaborate fantasy BEDKNOBS & BROOMSTICKS (not bad, but no shadow on MARY POPPINS) could well have garnered a nomination, if Fox had handled it!

original nominees
The Godfather [winner]
The Emigrants
The Candidate
The Poseidon Adventure
Travels with My Aunt

Notes: 1776, with both Columbia’s and Jack Warner’s own money behind it, was heavily pushed to patriotic Academy voters, who might well have tossed it a spot. THE CANDIDATE, one of the year’s better movies (with its Oscar-winning Jeremy Larner original script), probably deserved a Best Picture nomination in the first place, though it did only moderate business. Fox’s THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE was a very big, reasonably well-made hit studio picture; with ten open spots — and with THE GODFATHER the almost certain winner of the Best Picture Oscar — it would have been on this list. Mankiewicz’ film version of SLEUTH is an easy choice; after all, Mankiewicz, Anthony Shaffer and the film’s entire cast were all nominated. Metro worked very hard to promote Cukor’s classy TRAVELS, and many liked it.

This was difficult. With ten open spots, Columbia might have decided to go all out to promote its Fall ’72 flop YOUNG WINSTON for a Best Picture Oscar, but I don’t think the film was worth the effort. It isn’t a very good movie, but the popular BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE might have gotten some attention. UA’s MAN OF LA MANCHA was a non-starter (1776 may not be a masterpiece, but unlike LA MANCHA, it does play well on film). Paramount and Motown were extensively tub-thumping LADY SINGS THE BLUES (which did get five nominations), but I think Diana Ross rightly got most of the attention from that. If the well-regarded SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE had done more business (or managed to get even a single Oscar nomination) it might have figured into this. I regret to say that despite the Academy’s then recent penchant for nominating foreign-language films for Best Picture, I’m not sure that it would have extended to include Buñuel’s THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE. Darn it.

original nominees
The Sting [winner]
American Graffiti
Cries and Whispers
The Exorcist
A Touch of Class
The Iceman Cometh
Last Tango in Paris
Paper Moon
The Way We Were

Notes: Frankenheimer’s four-hour movie of O’Neill’s THE ICEMAN COMETH was the best picture produced by Ely Landau’s American Film Theatre organization — Robert Ryan really did deserve a posthumous Best Actor nomination for this — and I believe that with a wider field, the canny Landau could have managed a nomination for the movie. LAST TANGO was the most publicized film of 1973 (well, until THE EXORCIST opened at year’s end, anyway) and would easily have landed a spot on a list of ten. PAPER MOON, a critical and commercial smash, is an ideal addition to the list. The gritty SERPICO worked immediately with critics and audiences and became a major hit; Paramount and De Laurentiis wouldn’t have rested until it was on this list. The hit THE WAY WE WERE got six nominations, and Ray Stark’s people would have worked to add this one to its collection.

Ashby’s THE LAST DETAIL might have made the list, if Columbia had handled it carefully. SAVE THE TIGER, with Jack Lemmon’s much admired performance, might have slipped in there somewhere, but I don’t know whether the picture was that strong. [But, hey — 1973 is the year the lightweight hit A TOUCH OF CLASS was nominated for Best Picture. What do I know?] Since the Academy ignored MEAN STREETS in every other category, it would seem unlikely that Scorsese’s movie could achieve recognition as a Best Picture nominee (or, for that matter, CHARLEY VARRICK or Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE). Because of changes in Academy rules, 1973’s Best Foreign-Language Film winner, Truffaut’s DAY FOR NIGHT, was ineligible for mainstream Academy Awards until 1974.

original nominees
The Godfather, Part II [winner]
The Conversation
The Towering Inferno
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
Day for Night
Murder on the Orient Express
A Woman Under the Influence
Young Frankenstein

Notes: ALICE was a critical and influential success out of the gate (and Ellen Burstyn fully deserved her Best Actress Oscar) and became popular. Truffaut’s DAY FOR NIGHT won the ’73 Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar and would likely have been nominated for Best Picture the previous year but for Academy rules (it was nominated for ’74 Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress Oscars). ORIENT EXPRESS was a big year-end hit for Paramount and EMI, and a cinch for one of these spots. Cassavetes’ self-distributed A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, with its intense Oscar-nominated Gena Rowlands performance (Cassavetes was also nominated for directing), attracted considerable attention and did a surprising amount of business. Brooks’ well-liked YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN was a very, very big hit at Christmas ’74, and the picture’s nomination chances would have been enhanced by industry recognition of the great success of his BLAZING SADDLES from earlier in the year.

Universal heavily promoted EARTHQUAKE for Oscars, but while the studio’s Sensurround epic was a big commercial success, the movie couldn’t hold a candle to TOWERING INFERNO; besides, I think there’s room for just one disaster film on this list. Mazursky’s HARRY & TONTO (which, it will be remembered, was responsible for one of the biggest Oscar upsets of all time) was well regarded in the industry, and was a Fox production; with ten spots, it conceivably could have been a nominee. Since the Academy ignored BADLANDS in every other category, it would seem unlikely that Malick’s movie could achieve recognition as a Best Picture nominee. Because of Academy rules, ’74’s Best Foreign-Language Film winner, Fellini’s AMARCORD, was ineligible for mainstream Academy Awards until 1975.

original nominees
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [winner]
Barry Lyndon
Dog Day Afternoon
Funny Lady
The Man Who Would Be King
The Sunshine Boys

Notes: Fellini’s AMARCORD won the ’74 Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar and would likely have been nominated for Best Picture the previous year but for Academy rules, which would change after this year (the film was nominated for ’75 Best Director and Best Screenplay Oscars). FUNNY LADY may seem a bit of a stretch, but Columbia and Rastar did give a major post-season push to this back in the day. Huston’s THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING was well-reviewed and well-regarded, and had both Allied Artists (domestic) and Columbia (foreign) backing its Oscar hopes. SHAMPOO was one of the top films of the year, and a logical addition to this list. THE SUNSHINE BOYS was the best film version to date of a Neil Simon play (it still is), memorably acted by Matthau and Burns, and MGM and Rastar would have found a place for it here.

It’s hard to immediately think of other strong imaginable candidates.

original nominees
Rocky [winner]
All the President’s Men
Bound for Glory
Taxi Driver
The Front
Marathon Man
Seven Beauties (Italy)
Silver Streak
Voyage of the Damned

Notes: Another tough year to add titles to the list. Ritt’s THE FRONT was fairly powerful and its spirit was much admired. MARATHON MAN was an interesting attempt at an artistic thriller; it was a hit, and Paramount promoted it shrewdly. Lina Wertmüller’s SEVEN BEAUTIES was the year’s most sensational import, distributed effectively by Rugoff’s Cinema 5, which also did well in backing this for the Oscars (Wertmüller received an historic nomination for Best Director as well as one for Best Screenplay; Giancarlo Giannini was nominated for Best Actor). Fox’s SILVER STREAK was a hit comedy adventure which caught the public fancy at the end of ’76; all told, it wouldn’t be out of place here. ITC spent a fortune pushing its ambitious drama VOYAGE OF THE DAMNED, and I suspect that given ten spots, it would have made the list.

Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman received Oscar nominations for Best Actress and Best Director respectively for FACE TO FACE, but I don’t know whether the Swedish movie would have been nominated for Best Picture the same year as Italy’s SEVEN BEAUTIES. Warners went the distance with Oscar ads and promotion for A STAR IS BORN, but it wasn’t really Best Picture material. If John Wayne had been nominated for his excellent performance in Don Siegel’s THE SHOOTIST, the film might have been a contender here. Universal tried hard with THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION, but the picture didn’t catch on.

original nominees
Annie Hall [winner]
The Goodbye Girl
Star Wars
The Turning Point
A Bridge Too Far
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Saturday Night Fever
A Special Day

Notes: Only a few of the additions this year are ideal contenders — the exceptions are CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and perhaps A SPECIAL DAY. With a wide field, Joe Levine and UA might have been able to get a Best Picture nomination for the costly, lumbering BRIDGE TOO FAR, despite the Academy’s apathy toward the picture in all other categories. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, of course, was believed by many at the time to be an almost certain Best Picture nominee in the first place; it’s a logical addition. EQUUS, which opened to middling press (real horses — what were they thinking?) and only fair business, was nonetheless kept afloat by the good (nominated) performances of Richard Burton and Peter Firth; with UA’s promoting, it could have taken one of these spots. The explosive popularity of Christmas ’77’s SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and John Travolta’s electric Oscar-nominated performance could well have resulted in a Best Picture nomination, given ten open spots and skillful Paramount marketing. Scola’s A SPECIAL DAY was among the year’s most honored foreign-language films, featuring one of Marcello Mastroianni’s greatest (nominated) performances; Rugoff’s Cinema 5 strongly backed the film’s U.S. release.

It’s hard to say what else might have figured into this year. Scorsese’s NEW YORK, NEW YORK failed to get a single Oscar nod in any category (despite being shot entirely in Los Angeles — there goes the old “company town” canard), and did little more than moderate business, so it’s hard to imagine a Best Picture nomination falling its way. Paramount ran with LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR to an extent (which did get Tuesday Weld a Best Supporting Actress nomination), but I don’t think the movie was Best Picture material. New World’s good adaptation of I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN had some buzz, and the film picked up a Best Screenplay nomination, but the picture was perhaps too minor. Warners got behind OH, GOD!, but the comedy spot on this year’s list was already taken by THE GOODBYE GIRL. To reiterate a point I made earlier: I regret to say that despite the Academy’s then recent penchant for nominating foreign-language films for Best Picture, I’m not sure that it would have extended to include Buñuel’s THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE. Darn it.

original nominees
The Deer Hunter [winner]
Coming Home
Heaven Can Wait
Midnight Express
An Unmarried Woman
Autumn Sonata
Days of Heaven
Same Time, Next Year
Superman – The Movie

Notes: The moving AUTUMN SONATA was not only one of Ingmar Bergman’s most accessible movies (and almost a “comeback” film after the disastrous THE SERPENT’S EGG), it starred Ingrid Bergman, one of the screen’s — and Hollywood’s — greatest actresses in one of the finest performances of her career (she was nominated, and Bergman was nominated for Best Screenplay); New World and producer ITC would have ensured that the movie had every opportunity to find a spot on this list. Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN was among the year’s most critically honored films, expected by many to be a nominee in the first place. Allen’s INTERIORS received a remarkable amount of Oscar attention (five nominations, including Best Director and Best Screenplay); it’s no stretch to imagine that it would have gotten a Best Picture nomination. SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR was a well-liked adaptation of Bernard Slade’s Broadway comedy sparked by a terrific Ellen Burstyn (nominated) lead performance. SUPERMAN, which opened at the end of the year, was the first big-budget comic book movie and surprised and pleased audiences (and even many critics) with its spirit and good humor; with ten spots, in 1978, anyway, it could well have made the list.

Back in the day, Universal (and Motown) tried very hard to place THE WIZ for major Oscars; even with a ten spot field, I don’t think the weak musical would stand a chance. I think that the Academy would have recognized GREASE as the silly summer diversion (albeit an enormously popular one) that it was and not have seen it as Best Picture material (producer Allan Carr, who advised Universal on its marketing strategies for THE DEER HUNTER, certainly never envisioned it as such). Columbia and Rastar heavily promoted the hit, all-star film of Simon’s CALIFORNIA SUITE, but aside from the film’s effective episode with (Oscar-winner) Maggie Smith and Michael Caine, there wasn’t much there.

original nominees
Kramer vs. Kramer [winner]
All That Jazz
Apocalypse Now
Breaking Away
Norma Rae
Being There
The Black Stallion
La Cage aux Folles (France)

Notes: Even with ten nominees, this might have been one of the finest and most competitive Best Picture years ever. ALIEN, one of the best films of a very good year (and a big critical-commercial smash), would have been a certain nominee given a wide field. Ashby’s BEING THERE, a terrific movie with a dazzling, career-best Peter Sellers performance, is another likely nominee. Carroll Ballard’s THE BLACK STALLION, a brilliant, magical family film, captivated audiences and critics alike. UA’s LA CAGE import was an immediate hit (quickly becoming one of the top-grossing foreign-language films in U.S. history), and received nominations for Best Director, Best Screenplay and (inevitably) Best Costume Design; with ten spots, it would have been a nominee. Allen’s MANHATTAN, his biggest hit with audiences and critics to date, was widely expected to be a Best Picture nominee in the first place (the dark horse nominee was Ritt’s Fox picture, NORMA RAE).

It is possible that Columbia’s THE CHINA SYNDROME could have made this list. Columbia and Rastar were working on behalf of the film of Simon’s CHAPTER TWO (Marsha Mason did get a nomination), but I don’t think the picture was strong enough for the list. Fox did a lot for THE ROSE; with a wide field, it could have been a nominee. ITC believed its hit MUPPET MOVIE might have been a contender, but not this year.

originally posted on Variety.com

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