When people see the label Academy Award Winner," said Martin Scorsese, "they go and see that movie." Indeed they do – not just because the Oscar means it's the best film of the year, but because they can measure themselves against it: they can see how much it speaks to them or moves them, or conjures up the time they're living in. Along with the presidential election, the Oscar provides a mirror to Americans of the kind of people they are and tells them: this is the best we can do, apparently. Sometimes they may dislike what they see (Kramer vs Kramer? Are you sure? George W Bush? Are you sure?), but they're stuck with it.
For British film fans, the Oscars are a powerful nostalgia trigger. Of all the thousands of films we've seen in our lives, Oscar winners have a special, radioactive glow about them. We went to see them all. (Or nearly all. I didn't rush to see Driving Miss Daisy.) They were thoroughly discussed – theme, acting, score, costumes, dialogue, satisfaction of climax – depending on whom you were talking to. We took them seriously. We treated them as though they were important events in our lives.
In 1956 the critic Kenneth Tynan said he didn't think he could love anyone who didn't wish to see Look Back in Anger. Some movies felt like that. I remember my father insisting that my mother should see One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest because it would be "good for her". She liked escapism at the movies, My Fair Lady or (if we must have drama) The Way to the Stars. She had no wish to watch two hours of subversive behaviour in a loony bin, or see a man charged with statutory rape portrayed as a hero. My father thought she should have her sensibilities jolted. She did, but not in a good way. A nursing sister, she was appalled by the way Jack Nicholson refused to take his medicine and broke a window to get at his cigarettes.
Perhaps she was too set in her ways to be jolted by the movies. I found myself jolted time after time. Films were the constant backdrop to my life. Even if I didn't see some of them, they were out there. I was born in the year of From Here to Eternity, fell in love for the first time during the summer of In the Heat of the Night, went to university to the strains of gunfire and garrotting in The Godfather and had my first child as The Last Emperor was unscrolling across London screens. And a handful continue to glow with a special radiance. I can remember the circumstances of my first viewing, the impact each had on my, ahem, maturing sensibility, and the way they stamped an image, a colour or a whiff of brimstone on the year in question that time has never been able to eradicate. Let me take six Best Picture winners and hold them up to the light. k
Tom Jones (1963) : The year I discovered Englishness
Tony Richardson's debut won Best Picture in 1963, but I didn't see it until 1967. This was unsurprising since it carried an AA certificate, meaning you needed an adult to see it with you, and the poster showed Albert Finney, surrounded by fainting 18th-century beauties, a hero-and-harem trope soon to become ubiquitous on spy-movie posters. By 1967, I could persuade my father the film was essential viewing for serious students of O-level English. What I saw was a revelation.
A connoisseur of movies on TV, I'd grown up on Westerns, gangsters films, Bob-and-Bing comedies and stagey musicals. Movies seemed almost exclusively about Americans being brave, nasty, funny, cowardly. Almost the only exception was The Quiet Man, John Ford's 1952 comedy about a retired Pittsburgh boxer returning to his family home in Co Mayo. My parents were Irish. Most, if not all, their friends were Irish. Our holidays were either in Italy or Galway. I knew nothing of English geography; of English history, I retained memories of Tudor cruelty and Victorian industry. At school most of my friends were half-breeds: Paul's dad was French, Harry's mum was Dutch, Tony's dad was Polish. In my early years, my exposure to English fields, churches and stereotypes of character was virtually nil.
So I sat transfixed by a vision of Olde Englande I'd never guessed at. The country lanes! The great houses! The ludicrous wigs! The red faces! The elderly cleavages! The filthy farmyards! Squire Western's goggling eyes!
And accompanying such sights were clever little grace notes – the prancing spinet that announces Squire Allworthy's return home, the silent-movie titles that open the story, Tom's addresses to camera. I was aroused as only a 14-year-old virgin could be, by the lechery on the mud-grimed face of Diane Cilento, playing on-for-it Molly Seagrim. I was chastely appreciative of the pretty, innocent-ish Sophie Western, played by Susannah York. I hissed at the sanctimonious Blifil (David Warner), who lets Sophie's precious thrush fly away then lectures her on not caging animals – and exulted with the others when he is flung in the river. I loved the set pieces, the stag hunt, the masked ball, the Inn at Upton. And I found myself half in love with Squire Allworthy, played by George Devine. His grave, handsome face was the image of authority and common sense, the face of a kind-but-fair judge or teacher whom you could trust not to punish your misdeeds too severely.
I came out of the film a passionate Anglophile, as if I'd had a crash coursein English ways, and a subliminal moral lesson – it was far worse to be a creep or hypocrite than a naughty boy with an eye for the ladies.
My father was clearly appalled by all the kissing but, in his kindly way, decided to ignore it. I think he was tickled to find that, amid this farrago of Albionism, the presiding tone was set by the sonorous voiceover of Micheal MacLiammoir – an Irishman.
Midnight cowboy (1969): The year I came of age
The publicists of Midnight Cowboy boasted that it was the first X-rated movie to win a Best Picture Oscar. You can hear them saying, "It's time we all grew up about what a good movie should be."
Things got really serious in 1969. A year after the Tet Offensive, student riots, the killing of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the Prague Spring and its suppression, it felt as if new depths of misery, violence and grimness were being plumbed. This was not a time for escapism. It was the year of The Damned, Visconti's overblown portrait of the rise of Nazism, and They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and The Wild Bunch and Jean-Pierre Melville's gangsterish Resistance movie L'Armée des Ombres. But it was Midnight Cowboy that summons up the period with the greatest redolence.
It fairly reeks with griminess, sweat, cheap perfume, fag-smoke, chip-fat, dogshit, alcohol, street panic, wasted afternoons, nightclubs at 3am. The opening shots are of the kitchen in a Texan greasy spoon, where dirty plates mount up and everyone shouts, "Where dat Joe Buck?" – but the dishwasher is escaping his past, heading for New York in box-fresh cowboy boots, hat and fringed jacket, to find a new life as a stud, pleasuring rich Manhattan women.
His good looks and dumb-ass Southern enthusiasm are all he has going for him, but Jon Voight makes his naivety endearing. Sophisticates in the audience could tell from the smirk on the face of the street hustler "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) that he can't believe his luck in having this mooncalf fall into his clutches. Sophisticates in the audience could watch with a knowing smile as he is relieved of $20 by Sylvia Miles (who's supposed to be paying him for sex), then propositioned by Bible-thumping nutters and hit on by penniless men.
I wasn't one of the sophisticates. I was just 16 – legally entitled at last to watch an X film. I knew nothing about New York, hustling or the iniquities of human predation. I was, in other words, as naive as Joe Buck, although I didn't share his delusions of grandeur about my appeal as a sex object. I had no frame of reference for any of his encounters, so I could empathise with his innocence. Remember when Joe is taken to a cinema by a nervy gay teenager (Bob Balaban) and Joe's alarmed eyes widen as he waits, with horrified fascination, to see what happens. He looked like a child trying to comprehend the weirdness of adult life, like Tom Hanks in Big. Or like me.
What makes Midnight Cowboy great is the helpless co-dependency between Joe and Ratso, and the shifts of power between them, as Joe tries to bully the tubercular pimp, and Ratso teaches Joe how to survive by lying, cheating and stealing. The rest of the plot – Joe's success in finding a proper woman client at last – hardly matters. The crucial image is outside the nightclub, when Ratso, not long for this world, is sweating so profusely that Joe has to wipe his face with his new red shirt. Yeesh. For the first time I felt a frisson of disgust about the adult world I was entering.
One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975): The year of rebellion
Funny thing, rebellion. In the 1960s, you could express your refusal to conform by wearing your hair long (but so did everyone else), demonstrating in the street (ditto), wearing flowers round your neck (ditto), smoking marijuana (ditto), attending rock festivals and dancing in the mud with nothing on (ditto) or taping a Che Guevera poster to your wall (ditto). Most rebellions were a striking of attitude rather than a manning of the barricades.
The cinema didn't have much time for 1960s radicalism. Movies gave audiences cute homicidal bank robbers (Bonnie and Clyde), zany antics (A Hard Day's Night), hippie grooviness (Easy Rider) and anti-establishment gangster thrills (Point Blank, The Godfather), but intelligent anti-authority movies were thin on the ground: If..., Medium Cool, Getting Straight, The Strawberry Statement. It took the 1975 Oscar winner, Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to affirm that rebellion is about more than staging a demo, mouthing slogans and sitting waiting to be bashed up by the police.
The film's hero, Randle P McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), is not an honourable figure. He is guilty of statutory rape, telling the hospital warden, "She might have been 15 but when you get that little red beaver right up there in front of ya, I don't think it's crazy at all." Yet his role is more than being the naughtiest boy in the class: it's being an embodiment of logic and fighting for human rights in an institution that demands docility. He doesn't wield a gun nor carry a placard, but he's good at arguing. Nurse Mildred Ratched, brilliantly played by Louise Fletcher as a blankly implacable schoolmarm, argues back. For her, insubordination and disobedience are signs of illness that must be cured.
The mental hospital is the repressive state, which nurtures and praises its sons until they start doing something of which the state disapproves – demonstrating against a war or refusing to go and fight in it, say. Milos Forman, the Czech director, was an inspired choice. He could take Ken Kesey's Beat rebelliousness and fuse it with an anti-Soviet, anti-bureaucratic East European independence of spirit. Forman said that he took the asylum to be a metaphor for the Soviet Union, from which one had to escape.
The emotional core of the film, however, is the gradual awakening of the inmates. They watch Nicholson yelling a commentary to an invisible World Series game and trying to fling a marble water fountain through the window; they join him when he hijacks a field-trip bus and takes them on a fishing trip. They watch when he's taken away and lobotomised until he's a passive nothing.
When Chief Bromden, the huge Native American, uses the water fountain to break out of the hospital, the inmates wake up at the crash and start to yell. An echoing yell in the audience's hearts told us this was a film of rebellion and the human spirit that would stay with us when all the counter-cultural attitude-striking was forgotten.
Annie Hall (1977): The year we all got self-conscious
Woody Allen was a special case for my generation. His films required a deal to be struck with the viewer, that went as follows: we'll believe that this spindly, specky, balding, motor-mouthed git is a movie hero because he makes us laugh. We'll suspend disbelief about his appeal to beautiful women because his films sound like dispatches from middle-class New York. This is how Manhattanites roll, and we'll enjoy seeing him take the piss out of it. He seemed to speak to us directly about love, sex, pretension, friendship, fame or clubs you might consider joining. Whatever the plot of his early films, they were all showcases for his unusual brand of hesitant solipsism.
In the late 1970s, solipsism was everywhere. In 1977, the big trend was Looking Into Oneself. It helped that feminism had hit a new stride since the UN made 1975 the International Year of Women, but both sexes were discovering fascinating new things about themselves. When Est – Erhard Seminars Training – took off in San Francisco, an offshoot called Exegesis flourished in London. It involved attending four-day seminars of confrontation, in which your sense of self would be broken down and, through primal scream and brainwashing, rebuilt. Friends of mine went in for this stuff and emerged ecstatic, happier than they'd been before, but noticeably damaged.
Annie Hall is centrally concerned with this dangerous territory. Self-consciousness pervades the movie like a sickness. People talk about states of mind, planes of being, therapy, mantras, "finding" themselves, trying on intellectual conversation like a new fashion. It was the fag-end of what Tom Wolfe christened the "Me Decade". The spectacle of modern Americans talking bollocks about their state of mind didn't appear in many films. When it did, it was in Woody Allen films, with Allen doing the talking. He embodied it and mocked it. We may sound like tools, he seemed to say, but that's how modern life goes.
In Annie Hall, the worm turns. This is the film in which Allen loses patience with the Me Decade. Critics who were hard on the film missed the tone of exasperation, as Allen rejects all the new Californian nonsense. He has us laugh at Jeff Goldblum asking his guru on the phone for a new mantra, at the connoisseurship of cocaine,at Paul Simon's creepy invitation that they should get "real mellow" together; he makes psychotherapy jokes about penis envy, hostile gestures, orgasm worship, at Annie's determination to try everything new, such as smoking dope to "relax" before sex – he rejects it all, but knows he's still part of it.
When we left the cinema, nobody was sure where the "arc" of the story had gone or – crucially – why Alvy and Annie had split up. Was it his jealousy? Her chronic embracing of every new theory? Or is it just the ceaseless chattering about "feelings" by people whose feelings seem inauthentic? Woody Allen seems not to know himself. His movie ends, as it started, with him telling a little joke about delusions. It's the final piece of solipsism in a movie drenched in a self-regard that briefly threatened to overwhelm us all. k
Chariots of Fire (1981): The year of false heroics
Here come the British. Check them out as they jog along the West Sands beach in St Andrews, clad in buttoned-up singlets and grubby undercrackers, running in bare feet to the gloopy electronic strains of Vangelis. The runners' faces shine with righteousness, with the knowledge that running is jolly good for you – and running faster than other chaps is a sign of character. Nigel Havers, playing Lord Andrew Lindsay, has an idiotic smile on his face, as if this is tremendous fun, like pig-sticking. Ian Charleson, as the Bible-thumping Eric Liddell, has an expression that says I'm running for God here. Ben Cross, playing Harold Abrahams, sets his face in square-jawed determination to say, I'm running because I'm Jewish and I'm going to show the blasted anti-Semites who run Cambridge...
I hated Chariots of Fire. Apparently David Puttnam discovered Liddell's story while perusing "a reference book on the Olympics" (as you do) while housebound with flu in Los Angeles in 1978. He'd been looking for a story about a man following his conscience, along the lines of A Man for All Seasons (which won the Best Film Oscar in 1966) – and in the 1924 Olympics he found two for the price of one: the Jew and the God-botherer. Throw in 1920s period costumes and how could it fail? (This was the year when everyone fell in love with posh British bromance in Granada TV's Brideshead Revisited.) Then why not add a couple of Yanks – Brad Davis from Midnight Express and Dennis Christopher from Breaking Away – to make sure the Stateside audience lap it up. Remember how dazzled they were by the 1920s setting of The Great Gatsby?
It wasn't just that it was clunkingly directed and woodenly acted, with all those scenes of Cambridge chaps making jolly-good-show noises at each other with the occasional reference to "Israel" to remind Abrahams he's a bit of an outsider, and poor wee Ian Charleson having to utter terrible, sanctimonious lines ("I believe God made me for a purpose – but he also made me fast!").
It was the way the film assumed it could sell a very British, amateur, gentlemanly ideal of heroism to the paying audience. It couldn't. Watching Charleson flailing his arms like a panic-stricken seal while heading for the tape, I thought: is it wise to show such an amazingly inelegant athlete running in slow motion? Watching as Nigel Havers leapt a dozen hurdles with a glass of champagne placed on each, I prayed he'd end up with a knee-full of broken glass. As Ben Cross contemplated his rival's speed, he seemed to radiate jealousy or sulks but nothing else. And why did director Hugh Hudson refuse to show Abrahams winning his race, cutting instead to his trainer, Mr Mussabini (Ian Holm), punching a hole in his straw boater on hearing the National Anthem?
I'm sorry. It was all too discreet and sidelong and constipated and bloody British to be any good. This was the year Harrison Ford first appeared as Indiana Jones, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Warren Beatty played John Reed in the Russian Revolution epic Reds. Heroism was alive and well in 1981 – just not in Chariots of Fire.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991): The year we fell for a monster
There's more running, I'm afraid, during the opening of The Silence of the Lambs – but there's a point to Clarice Starling's outdoor jog. It's to show the film's main character at her best – wholesome, fit, healthy, young, scrubbed of make-up, at one with Nature, all that – shortly before she's scheduled to descend into Hell.
She goes there not once, but twice. Sent to visit Hannibal Lecter in prison, to enlist his help in finding the serial killer Buffalo Bill, Starling goes downstairs, is briefed by a lecherous warden and sent through a barred door into the hideous darkness where mad killers lurk behind bars (one flings sperm at her). When she confronts Bill in his home, she goes with him to his repulsive basement to discover his final victim in a well-like dungeon. As she's searching in the dark, he comes behind her in night-vision goggles, extending his Satanic hand, glowing green, to seize her and finish her off...
I was 38 in 1991 and inured to cinema horror, tired of films where somebody jumped out and went "Boo!". But The Silence of the Lambs scared the life out of me. It was like nothing I'd seen before, though it concerned one of the oldest tropes: katabasis, the journey to Hades to defeat Death. Starling has to defeat a demon in her head – the childhood memory of being orphaned and sent to live in a relative's house by a lamb slaughterhouse. She must erase the memory of death, of the lambs' pre-mortem bleating. So we're watching a classical drama. The only thing that's unusual about it is that we are made to root for one of the devils.
How did we fall for a cannibalistic serial killer? He has qualities that beguile us – deducing, Sherlock-like, Clarice's trailer-trash background and sniffing her perfume like a connoisseur. He comes on as a gourmet, recalling the fava beans and Amarone (in the book; it's Chianti in the film). He draws and paints, he wishes for a view – a bit of an artist, like Oscar Wilde in Reading jail. And he has a mental file of bad guys that he's prepared to share if Clarice does what he wants.
If this were simply Former Villain Makes Good By Helping Cops, it would not be interesting. But what puts this film up among the greats is that it doesn't rehabilitate Lecter. Halfway through, in transit to a new prison, he kills two guards, bites the face off one and uses the flesh mask to get away. But still we're led to feel that, however bad Lecter may be, he's much cooler than Buffalo Bill.
Bill (Ted Levine) is unbelievably creepy and amazingly camp. With his fluffy poodle, nipple ring and swishing about in front of a mirror, artfully concealing his genitalia, he is a perverse mirror image to Clarice, a girl in a cop uniform trying to survive in a rudely masculine world.
We choose to admire Lecter and feel revulsion for Bill. Lecter may beat guards to death and eat their remains, but he's not, you know, a seamstress. And we like the way he takes a fatherly interest in Clarice, and helps to calm her fears. He's not a hero, certainly not a stable friend, but he has charisma, authority, sway.
Hopkins does something that movies rarely do but can do brilliantly: hypnotise an audience into believing that evil is good, black is white, and wrong is right.
LETTER TO THE EDITOR
I just read the article by John Walsh, "Woody Allen, Hannibal Lecter & me: The Best Picture Oscar winners that left a lasting impression." While it was nice to see the est Training mentioned, Mr. Walsh's article implied some association of the est Training with the Exegesis program. The fact is that there is no relationship between the two. The est Training was an enormously popular program, sometimes controversial and frequently imitated (badly) program of the 70s that spawned an entire self-development and coaching industry, and many of its key concepts have earned a lasting place in mainstream culture along with making a huge contribution to the lives of over one-half million people.
Martin N. Leaf, Esq.
New York, New York