1974 was indeed a bountiful year. In addition to the movies Magilla listed, I’d throw in Badlands (did you leave that out deliberately or inadvertently?), The Sugarland Express, the American Film Theatre version of Butley, California Split, Richard Lester’s hugely enjoyable Three Musketeers, and even Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller, which I thought worked far better than critics gave it credit for. It was also Mel Brooks’ peak year, with both Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Of these, only Sugarland Express and Badlands would have contended for my best picture or director spot (at the time, I felt sorry for Spielberg, whose praised maiden effort had so failed at finding an audience – something that didn’t happen to him often afterward) . But they all contributed to a year where going to the movies was fun end to end.
Though I’m sure we’d all tweak the official Academy list to reflect personal favorites, on the whole I’d say the voters did a pretty good job selecting a slate. The Towering Inferno is obviously the weak link among the best pictures, but I couldn’t get too worked up about its inclusion, because 1) given that it was an at-the-time unprecedented collaboration between two studios – Fox and Warner Brothers – I had no doubt it was going to make the cut and 2) I find it the most painless watch of all the disaster movies in that era. I even ended up watching it a couple of additional times when it hit HBO a year later. It clearly wasn’t good in any true sense, but there was something about it I enjoyed. (Its cinematography and editing wins were, however, an outrage)
To jump to directing for a moment: A Woman under the Influence wasn’t a great personal favorite. As I know I’ve said here before, I’d admired Husbands a few years earlier, at least for its aspirations, but when I saw this, I came to the conclusion that the things I thought were sabotaging Cassavettes’ ambitions – the lingering, repetitive scenes -- were in fact the things for which he was striving. For many people, though, this was their first encounter with Cassavettes (it was by far his greatest commercial success); perhaps they felt supportive of him in the same way I had after Husbands. So, even though I wouldn’t have nominated him -- and won’t be voting for him -- I guess it’s fitting Cassavettes got a career directing acknowledgement. Which, by the way, gave him a truly unique Academy profile: single nominations in three separate categories – acting, writing, directing – all for different films.
The rest of the films in both categories are quite stellar, though I rate The Conversation just a bit lower than some seem to. I found it a very effective thriller, well-staged, with interesting themes woven in. But I find the plot a bit too reminiscent of Blow-Up to be totally blown away by it, and I also find the determinedly bleak tone a touch pretentious. I know many view this as a great art film – the status to which it seems to aspire – but I like it only in spite of those aspirations. For me, it’s good-not-great -- definitely the second-finisher among Coppola’s films that year.
I’d seen Lenny onstage with Cliff Gorman and loved it (it was my first exposure to Lenny Bruce’s work; during his heyday I’d only known him second-hand as that foul-mouthed comic). That the film version was being made by Bob Fosse in the wake of Cabaret, starring Dustin Hoffman, the closest to an actor-hero I had, made this maybe the most anticipated film of my then-short lifetime. For the most part, the film lived up to my expectations. Fosse once again took a wildly theatrical piece and, while preserving the best of it, made it a completely cinematic film. I disagree with Magilla’s take: I think Hoffman is amazing throughout – operating from a different center of gravity than ever before – and very funny. (In fact, I watched The Lenny Bruce Performance Film only a few weeks after seeing the film, and found Hoffman incredibly close to his model) Valerie Perrine – who I’d really liked in both Slaughterhouse-Five and The Last American Hero – was equally wonderful as Honey (sad her career didn’t amount to more). And the film really got at the roots of Bruce’s comic style, and the inevitability of its colliding with 50s/early 60s America’s uptight mores. The film was inevitably seen as secondary to Fosse’s huge breakthrough with Cabaret, but I think it’s another major achievement. (One The People vs. Larry Flynt must acknowledge, since Forman’s film seems substantially influenced by it) It doesn’t get my vote, but I loved it.
I found Day for Night a wonderfully sweet, wise movie that extended its view of how movies are made to demonstrate how one gets through life in general (“You start out hoping for a pleasant journey, and end up just hoping you reach your destination”). The characters, of various ages and experience (from the young ingénue to the aging/fearful of obsolescence Cortese), offer a broad sample of human behavior (venal or courageous, comic or tragic). In the end, everyone does what one does in life: continues on…as in the closing shot, where everyone works to re-shoot a scene – surrounded by fake snow -- all to preserve the illusion of the story they’re attempting to tell. All this positively said…I don’t view Day for Night as a major work. For me, in the Truffaut canon, it belongs in the small-but-flawless realm of things like Small Change (and maybe Stolen Kisses, though I know a lot of people who revere that, as well), and well short of the top category, where I put Jules and Jim and The 400 Blows. So, though I admire the film a great deal, it won’t be getting any votes from me.
The Godfather Part II came as a great surprise to me. As December rolled in, I saw nothing on the slate that was going to compete with my favorite film for year-end honors; the idea that a sequel would fill that spot never crossed my mind. But Godfather II is of course an exception to most rules. Its unique structure – paralleling young Vito’s journey from Sicilian refugee to Mulberry Street mafia leader with Michael’s consolidation of power (and the ruthlessness that came with it) made the film the rare sequel with higher artistic aspirations than the original. But the film also retained the sense of classical tragedy that marked the original —culminating in the outcome with Fredo, which many would rank as the most powerful moment in Coppola’s filmography. For myself, I love the scene where Michael is called away on “business” in the middle of the night, and goes to say goodbye to his son – his son, like many sons would do, asks “Can I come with you?”…and Michael’s “Someday you will” is both typical-dad and chilling to the bone. This film is no doubt a major accomplishment.
When Coppola won the DGA award, some (including me) thought it was tribute to his best picture two-fer – and maybe make-up for his upset loss two years earlier. It turned out instead to be part of a best picture juggernaut, to which I don’t vehemently object, but which I can’t endorse.
Because, to me, Chinatown is the masterpiece of 1974, and one of the greatest films of the decade – a film so rich on so many levels that a paragraph or two doesn’t seem enough to do it justice . It exists first and foremost, of course, as an LA detective story in the mode of Chandler/Hammett (with a twist that stunned us at the time). But it also serves as a corrupt history of LA (city and county), a story especially resonant for a country that was then uncovering governmental corruption on a national scale (one critic called Chinatown “a Watergate with real water”). Beyond that, the film offers a main character with superior detecting skills whose propensity for personal involvement with his clients has already brought him down to a low-level existence (he left the LAPD for reasons we’re never specifically told, though we know they involved a woman), and makes us watch as he’s helplessly drawn into another version of that same vortex, with tragic results. These are the conceptual elements that give the film its overall power, but god dwells in the details, and every element of the film seems near perfection. The plot is drawn incredibly tightly – even Burt Young’s character from the initial scene, who seems to exist for that moment in the script alone, returns at a key moment. The dialogue is often superbly quirky and memorable (“Middle of a drought and the water commissioner drowns. Only in LA”). The production design is immaculate, but never spends a moment admiring itself, and is superbly shot by John Alonzo. The score is blisteringly romantic and tragic. And Roman Polanski films it all to perfection – from the opening shot (where we’re matching the moans offscreen to the sexually compromising photos we’re watching, till we realize it’s Burt Young groaning at his wife’s infidelity), through my favorite – Duffy pulling the oars and Gittes gliding by on the rowboat in Echo Park – to the final tableau of Dunaway’s getaway car slowing to a halt, and then Nicholson and his guys walking hopelessly into the distance (after one of the greatest closing lines in film history). If all that doesn’t add up to a great movie, I’ve never seen one. Chinatown gets my easy vote for best picture, and Polanski wins best director almost three decades before the Academy finally decided to cite him.