If the Academy’s expanded Best Picture nomination process (resulting in five to eight or nine nominees) were in effect in 1980/’81 and if the New Academy Kidz groupthink view that “exceptional genre films are award-worthy” had been in effect, it’s reasonable to presume that the following eight films would have been Best Picture contenders: Breaker Morant, Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Elephant Man, The Empire Strikes Back, Melvin and Howard, Ordinary People, Raging Bull and The Stunt Man.
No offense but I don’t believe that Fame and Private Benjamin — a pair of diverting, female-empowerment entertainments — would have been considered worthy of Best Picture consideration. Private Benjamin is the better of the two, I suppose, but I’m not sure that’s saying much. I saw it once and have never felt an urge to revisit.
If I’d been an Academy member marking my preferential ballot back then, I would have put Martin Scorsese‘s Raging Bull at #1 because it’s a blunt tool that nonetheless delivers delicacy, tragedy and the worst kind of aching, lonely-man anguish. Among the Best Picture hotties it was the most glamorously unglamorized, the least formulaic and the most against-the-usual-grain contender (raw, crude, earthy…the Florida jail-cell primal scream scene alone), the most flavorful (“I’m not an animal, I’m not that bad”, “Defeats its own purpose,” “I dunno whether to fuck him or fight him”) and the most…I don’t know, the most face-slappy or gut-punchy.
And I would have put Bruce Beresford‘s Breaker Morant as my #2. A Vietnam-metaphor drama about politicians and the military elite sticking it to rank-and-file soldiers in order to save their own necks — a kin of Paths of Glory (which at the time had been released 23 years earlier) and an equally-strong indictment. Arguably the finest hour of Edward Woodward, Bryan Brown and Jack Thompson.
My #3 would have been Robert Redford‘s Ordinary People. By today’s standards it would probably be called a “white people movie”, and could probably never be made today, and if someone were to make it anyway it would get hammered for dwelling in its own secluded realm, a lack of diversity, a portrait of white-bread neuroticism, etc.
I know that for a lot of people 1980 was a Raging Bull-vs.-Ordinary People year, but they’re closer in spirit that many would admit. Ordinary People was, in its own way, almost as full of anger and push-back, refrigerator-punching rage as the Scorsese-De Niro film. Except for the self-loathing “God hates me” factor, Raging Bull has never affected anyone emotionally — not really. Certainly no one I know, or, you know, anyone who parks their car in the HE garage. Okay, the jail-cell scene gets people.
My #4 would have been The Empire Strikes Back, and my #5 would have Melvin and Howard.
The remaining trio, in this order: Coal Miner’s Daughter (the third Best Picture contender that year to pass along a female-empowerment saga), The Stunt Man and The Elephant Man (i.e., primarily a production design effort).
Now I’m suddenly in the mood to stream Breaker Morant and Coal Miner’s Daughter. I love Tommy lee Jones in the latter — “Three ways to go in this town…coal mine, moonshine or move on down the line.”