'Rocky' beats 'Taxi Driver' and more...
Back when divorce was still a hot button social issue (the ‘70s was strange like that), Robert Benton’s family in crisis drama managed to walk away with several of the year’s statues. It was five for nine, snagging two for acting, screenplay, director and picture. Looking back, the movie makes for a fine character study. But when put up alongside Coppola’s Vietnam fever dream and Bob Fosse’s autobiographical binge, it seems like a less solid choice.
It will always remain a surreal situation. While nominated for 10 total awards, it looked like Sylvester Stallone’s labor of love was about to be swept out of the ‘77 ceremony. Then, in one of the most unlikely upsets ever, John G. Avildsen won Best Director (beating shoe-in Sidney Lumet) and Rocky took home the top prize. While a fine film in its own right, the notion that it managed to trounce a trio of post-modern classics confirms the Academy’s occasional loose grip on motion picture reality.
At this point in his career, Steven Spielberg was constantly referred to as the most popular, influential, and considered director not to win the big one (apparently, the East Coast bias against Scorsese was still in full force). So when he took on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about rural African Americans in ‘30s America, his eventual win (and several more for the film) seemed like a foregone conclusion. Spielberg even received the coveted DGA blessing, making him the presumptive favorite. In pure Oscar style, he wasn’t even nominated.
Sometimes, the shortsighted nature of the entire awards process more or less mandates Academy missteps. Though many saw it as nothing more than an overreaching critical darling, Quentin Tarantino’s cult crime epic has gone on to be one of the most influential films in the recent history of cinema. Of course, it couldn’t beat the feel good flimsiness of Forrest Gump (that year’s Oscar sweetheart) and QT did get the conciliatory screenplay nod. He and his still remarkable film deserved much, much more.
While a sensibility soaked in Star Wars might argue about Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi meditation on man’s place in the cosmos, the truth is that the 1968 spectacle stands as a singular cinematic achievement. Yet, somehow, it failed to earn a Best Picture nomination. Clearly, the Academy thought Rachel, Rachel, Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet, The Lion in Winter, Funny Girl, and eventual winner Oliver! were much more representative of the medium. Almost 40 years later, it’s clear which film remains the most iconic, and important.