It’s that time of year again, when the Academy Awards celebrates the pinnacle of Hollywood filmmaking. Sometimes the Oscars go to films that become all-time classics (Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Amadeus). Other times, not so much (How Green Was My Valley, Oliver!, Million Dollar Baby).
Time will tell whether the winners of this year’s contest will yield true classics or titles of the more forgettable variety that seem great at the time, but do not resonate five, ten, or twenty years down the road.
It’s rare to get an Oscar year chock full of films that all fit the classic variety, but there was such a year in 1977. That year’s 49th Academy Awards celebration recognized movies released in 1976.
First, let’s set the scene, because it is very important in understanding why 1976 was such a great year for cinema.
Jimmy Carter had just been elected president, assuring the country would be going in a different direction, though not necessarily a better one. Voters had wiped away the last vestiges of the Nixon years and Watergate. Vietnam was behind us, and American prestige overseas was on the wane.
Sure, America was celebrating its bicentennial, but for a lot of people, there wasn’t much to celebrate. The economy was circling the drain, with budget deficits, rising unemployment, cheap foreign imports, and high prices combining to create a crunch on peoples’ wallets not seen in decades. Disco was starting to rear its ugly head, and polyester was taking over fashion in a big way.
As Faye Dunaway’s character said in one of the year’s Oscar-nominated films, Network: “People have turned off, shot up, f**ked themselves limp, and nothing helps.”
With that kind of backdrop, its no wonder people were flocking to the movies to escape. It’s also no surprise that filmmakers were finding a treasure trove of material to keep those audiences entertained.
Each of the Best Picture nominees for 1976 tapped directly into the collective American psyche in some way. First there was Bound for Glory, a film biography of Woody Guthrie. This one didn’t necessarily stand the test of time, but check out this murderer’s row of nominees: Network, All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver, and Rocky. Don’t believe these are all-time classics? Check out their Tomatometer ratings.
Network, the scathing portrait of a down-on-its-luck television network, was considered the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture. But audiences wanted something a little more upbeat, and the loveable underdog boxer from Philadelphia took home the big prize. Rocky director John G. Avildsen was also rewarded for his work with an Oscar, and Sylvester Stallone was nominated for his performance and his screenplay.
Network didn’t go home empty-handed, though. In fact, it cleaned up with the acting awards. How could Faye Dunaway utter a line like the one quoted above and not win? Peter Finch, who died shortly before the ceremony, was posthumously awarded Best Actor. And Beatrice Straight won Best Supporting Actress for what turned out to be the shortest performance in Oscar history: five minutes and forty seconds of screen time. Paddy Chayefsky won for Best Original Screenplay; an award richly deserved for one of the best movie scripts ever written, IMHO.
All the President’s Men held its own with wins for Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay as well as some other technical awards. Taxi Driver didn’t take home any gold, but it definitely went on to become a classic.
It wasn’t just the top nominated films that shook up cinema in 1976. Looking down-ballot at some of the other categories, we see some films that have gone on to live memorable lives on DVD and Netflix queues: Carrie, The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Omen, and Logan’s Run.
When you consider fashion, music, the economy, and politics, 1976 is a year many would like to forget. But sometimes great art can be found in great adversity. And for that reason among others, 1976 turned out to be Oscar’s best year. Not before or since has such an array of talent come together to produce such a fine crop of films in such a finite period of time. Hopefully we’ll see that happen again soon.