1978 Oscars – When the Academy Decided To Not Be So Academy-like

It was a strange awards season.


1977 was not the greatest of years for movies, but it was also one of the greatest years for movies. It was not a year for depth, as some of the films that made the nominations for Best Picture would attest to, but the two big winners at the Academy Awards, held on April 3, 1978, were high points of their creator’s careers. They were also examples of films that in 2018 would have very little chance of making it to Oscar night, even in a world in which nine films are now eligible each year.

It was a struggle for the voters in the Academy to even get to the designated five for that year, with weak entries such as The Turning Point (nominated for a staggering 11 awards, of which it won a record-setting zero) and Julia. The Goodbye Girl, written by late-70s Oscar-guarantor Neil Simon and directed by Herbert Ross (who also helmed The Turning Point) is an enjoyable enough romantic comedy, but not of the kind that warrants talk of one of the great films of the year. 1977 had also seen the release of Richard Burton’s last hurrah, Eqqus, a strongly-acted piece that deserved more recognition, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg’s follow-up to 1975’s blockbuster-creating Jaws.

Spielberg did get a Best Director nod for Close Encounters, but this was mostly due to Academy rules dictating that a person can only be nominated once in a category, meaning Herbert Ross could only be put forward for one of his two Best Picture nominations (in true Academy fashion, he was nominated for the weaker of the two), and perhaps a recognition that he had been unfairly denied a nomination for Jaws two years earlier. Close Encounters was always going to struggle to be the film that broke Spielberg as a darling of the Academy, as it dealt in a genre that was guaranteed to send Oscars scurrying away in thinly veiled disgust: science-fiction.


No science-fiction film had ever been nominated for Best Picture, and it would take something truly special to break the Academy’s prejudice. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a tremendous film, deserving of being the film to break that partiality, with Richard Dreyfuss perhaps even better in the lead role here than in The Goodbye Girl, even if his Roy Neary makes some decisions regarding his family that seem a little difficult to get on board with in 2018. If nothing else, it was further evidence that Spielberg was one of the great directors, and his time to rack up Oscars was soon to come.

Shockingly, however, this was the year that science-fiction did get its first Best Picture nomination. It wasn’t Spielberg’s superbly-crafted Close Encounters that did so, but instead his good friend George Lucas who cracked the barrier with the highest-grossing film of all time at that point, Star Wars.

Lucas’s previous film, the 50s/early 60s nostalgia piece American Graffiti (1973), had been a massive success, and still remains one of the most profitable movies ever released in the United States. It had also been nominated for Best Picture, losing out to The Sting (1973), but had spread its influence over pop culture in a way the Newman-Redford caper had not, kick-starting a nostalgia boom that resulted in numerous copycat movies and leading to the most popular TV show of the late 1970s, Happy Days. (An interesting side note here is that George Lucas had cast Ron Howard in American Graffiti based on his performance in the pilot that would later become Happy Days). Despite the movie’s success, Lucas had trouble in securing financing for his next project, with most studios passing on the science-fiction treatment the director was presenting them with.

Eventually, 20th Century Fox agreed to provide the money for the film, and untold riches were soon to be made. Star Wars premiered on May 25, 1977, and almost immediately became a box-office phenomenon, defining forever the Hollywood blockbuster and sending the film industry into the summer-centric, merchandise-heavy, franchise obsessed world it is now.

What gets forgotten about Star Wars amongst the well-worn stories of financial deals, people being sure it would fail, and the changes to Hollywood it wrought, is that it is a great movie. The plot is easy to get involved in, it moves at an enjoyable and exciting pace, and the characters are immediately iconic. Darth Vader is a tremendous villain, as is Peter Cushing’s disdainful Grand Moff Tarkin, Alec Guinness adds a sense of calm elegance and authority as Ob-Wan Kenobi, and the comic relief of C3-PO and R2-D2 is not overplayed. Moreover, the central heroic trio – Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo – are played with energy and youthful exuberance by Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford, each of them bouncing well of the others and quickly making the audience root for them in their struggle against the Empire.

Although the Star Wars franchise would go on to make billions over the next forty years, Star Wars remains the only entry to receive a nomination for Best Picture, which seems a slight on the brilliance of The Empire Strikes Back (1980). However, Star Wars’ success in part explains the lack of appreciation for some of its sequels (its prequels deserving of such a lack). The blockbuster-heavy Hollywood that emerged in its wake, with studios bought up by massive corporations of the following decades for the sole purpose of making Star Wars-level money, has led to a dismissal of the summer blockbuster when it comes to awards season, sometimes unfairly so.

Return Of The King (2003) was bestowed with the Best Picture statue, more for a begrudging recognition of the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy than the film itself, but even then those were films that were adaptations of a respected literary source. Other high quality blockbusters, such as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) did not get the recognition they deserved, as the Academy in general shows a sense of disdain to hugely successful commercial movies (the cruelly neglected cream of Pixar’s output being another casualty of this snootiness). Star Wars, and Jaws before it, had proven that massive financial successes loved by a large number of people could also be well-made, inventive films. Indeed, not all widely popular movies had to be on the artistic level of Airport ’77.

In 1978, however, phenomena like Star Wars were still new, and perhaps the Academy felt like they had to acknowledge something obviously beloved by so many people. Even if it was science-fiction. This may be why Close Encounters of the Third Kind was ignored – if they had to accept one science-fiction movie they may as well go for the most popular one.

Yet Star Wars did not win Best Picture that year. That went to a film of another genre that the Academy has long been dismissive of: comedy. Since making his directorial debut in 1969 with Take The Money And Run, Woody Allen had built up an impressive resume of uproariously funny pictures: Bananas (1971), Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Too Afraid To Ask (1972), Sleeper (1973) and Love And Death (1975), as well as writing and starring in Hebert Ross’s underrated Play It Again, Sam (1972). Critics were big fans of Allen’s mix of intellectual references, neurotic self-deprecation, and old-fashioned slapstick, and although he wasn’t close to breaking any box-office records, he had built a loyal audience that insured his films were profitable.

Throughout 1976 he had been working on a murder mystery film, titled Anhedonia, until he ultimately decided that the most successful part of the movie was the romantic relationship between the two central characters. Some clever editing and reshooting later, and Annie Hall was born.

Annie Hall was a much different beast to Allen’s previous work – the movies that would later notoriously be described as the “early, funny ones”. Firstly, there was the look of the film. Working with the cinematographer Gordon Willis, who had risen to prominence due to his excellent work on The Godfather (1972), Annie Hall looked a more mature work than his previous films, in which the camera was mostly placed in wide shots to show the gag. Willis encouraged Allen to move away from the conventional filming technique of master shot and shot reverse shot, instead letting the camera move with the characters as they interacted. It gave a natural feeling to the performances, making the relationship between Allen’s Alvy Singer and Diane Keaton’s wonderful Annie seem realistic and unstaged; the characters sometimes talk over one another, they disappear out of shot as they move around their apartments – it seems as if we are really there with them, missing things as one would in real life when restricted to the limitations of our line of sight. The style was so successful that Allen has for the most part maintained it for the rest of his career, establishing it very much as his own.

The re-cutting of the film also led to Allen playing with conventions of time, and the story jumps back and forth, not following the usual chronological timeline of a romantic comedy. This adds to the general idea of the film, which revolves around Alvy looking back over his relationship with Annie to try and figure out where it went wrong. This is a situation many of us have been in, and we rarely do this in a linear fashion, instead being reminded of a million other things as we break down what happened. This was a narratively mature choice to take, and no doubt helped to make it seem more acceptable as a Best Picture choice than the average A to B romantic comedy.

This maturity that made Annie Hall a step forward in Allen’s film work was also seen in the portrayal of the central relationship between Alvy and the title character. Diane Keaton had played Allen’s love interest in Play It Again, Sam, Sleeper and Love And Death, and the pair had real chemistry in all those films, perhaps due to them having dated in real life, but in all those pictures the purpose of their relationship had been to provide the set ups for jokes. Whilst Annie Hall was still funny – very, very funny – Annie and Alvy’s relationship was presented as a real romantic entanglement. They meet in a regular manner through friends, they have fights, they both have issues, they contradict themselves, they have a clear and deep affection for one another, and they eventually grow apart. That this is all conveyed whilst still providing some of Allen’s best ever lines – “Don’t knock masturbation, it’s sex with someone I love,” perhaps being the most famous – lifted Annie Hall above his other work and in a weaker year without any clear traditional Oscar-devourer on release, it sneaked its way into the running for Best Picture.

It’s been forty years since Star Wars was seen as a serious contender and Annie Hall took the top prize, although Allen was famously not present to receive his award, the ceremony clashing with his regular Monday night gig, playing clarinet in New York. Since then, the Academy has returned to its usual avenues for choosing Best Picture: serious drama, beautiful women playing not-so-beautiful women, and safely middle-of-the-road biopics and “true” stories. The victory of Moonlight (2016) last year perhaps suggests that in an increasingly shifting Hollywood environment, as a result of the various controversies of the last few years – whitewashing, gender pay gaps and the industry ravaging #MeToo – perhaps films which are narratively challenging or which play with form and convention may begin to populate the expanded Best Picture category with more regularity, and have a chance of victory.

Of course, there is just as high a probability that The Darkest Hour (2017) with its biopic conformity and award-worthy central performance from Gary Oldman, walks away with the top statuette this year and Moonlight will just be an aberration in the same way as Annie Hall and Star Wars were forty years ago. Nonetheless, as 1978 proved, sometimes the Academy is capable of forgetting their prejudices and not only nominating fantastic movies that forty years on are still pinnacles of their genres, but even letting a deserving film like Annie Hall beat its Oscar-baiting competitors. Who knows, maybe Lady Bird (2017) will be victorious and prove that the Academy has changed in a more permanent sense.