“The Exorcist” (1973)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? Um, have you seen “The Exorcist?” Not only is it a horror movie, a genre upon which the Academy is notoriously squeamish about bestowing any sort of legitimacy, but it is one of the scariest, and most grotesque horror films ever made—we can’t recall any other film in which a prepubescent girl stabs herself in the crotch with a crucifix repeatedly and demands that her mother lick her getting this sort of industry approbation. And its overt religiosity, of course, was interpreted as blasphemy by some, with preacher Billy Graham famously calling the film itself “satanic” and claiming that even the celluloid itself that went into the prints was evil, which all seems kind of quaintly hilarious now, but adds to the surprise of the film’s level of establishment acceptance: Hollywood rarely messes with religion. And we’re not talking a random, tip o’ the hat Best Picture nomination—there is depth and breadth to the Academy’s desire to recognize this film: it received ten nominations, across major categories (Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay) and technical categories too (Cinematography, Editing, Sound Mixing and Production Design).
Why Was It Nominated? Well, it is an extraordinarily good horror movie. And of the ten nominations it won just two (Sound Mixing and Screenplay), which could arguably make it a good earlyish example of a practice that has become more common recently, especially since the Best Picture field was widened to ten potential nominees: the “it’s nice just to be here”/“hasn’t got a hope” nomination. But aside from that, let’s look the 1974 Oscars in general: this was a year in which Ingmar Bergman was nominated (for Picture and Director) for “Cries and Whispers,” a foreign-language film in which a character self-mutilates; “Last Tango In Paris” with its explicit anal sex scene, picking up noms for Bernardo Bertolucci and Marlon Brando; even Jack Nicholson’s nod for the (at the time) incredibly profane “The Last Detail” deserves a mention. Ah, the seventies, we might say with a misty eye, and we’d probably be right: this was a period in which button-pushing, edgy fare was more routinely rewarded that it is now. Up to a point. In terms of wins, “The Sting” which also got ten nominations, won seven, including Picture and Director. This was William Friedkin’s first film since winning Best Director for “The French Connection” and so it’s very possible that whatever he’d put out next would have gotten an added bump from his newly-minted status as an Oscar-winning director. However, his nomination in that category would mark the last time Friedkin got the nod to date.
How Does It Hold Up Now? “The Exorcist” is still a terrific film, but its impact has necessarily lessened over the years, partly due to the massive, massive shadow it casts on popular culture: it’s unlikely that anyone could come to a viewing of it today without already having seen about a hundred parody references, from the pea-soup vomit to the priestly defenestration to the infamous spider-walk. But that’s perhaps part of the reason it is still a hall-of-famer: you have to see where all those pop culture references came from, and while so doing, you may well be surprised at how genuinely shocking some of those scenes still are in their original form (I refer you back to the crucifix/blood/masturbation/mother scene which still makes me gape).
"Taxi Driver" (1976)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? We pretty much could have packed out this entire list with nothing but the films of Martin Scorsese, to be honest. With the exception of "The Aviator" and maybe "Hugo," when the director makes something that might seem more obviously Academy-friendly, like "The Age Of Innocence" and "Kundun," he's overlooked, but when he's on the territory for which he's best known—brutal violence, f-bombs, drugs, etc. etc.—he often ends up with a Best Picture nomination, even if it took him nearly thirty years to actually win the thing. "Raging Bull," "Goodfellas," "Gangs Of New York" and "The Departed" all hardly feel like Oscar bait on the surface, but it's the awards success of "Taxi Driver" that feels the most surprising in hindsight. The first time one of Scorsese's movies landed a Best Picture nod, it's also one of his darkest: we'd hesitate to call Paul Schrader's script nihilistic, because there's enough religious subtext in there to give it some light, but the story of Travis Bickle, and the grim, seedy version of New York he inhabits, full of dates in porno theaters, child prostitution, would-be assassination and gun rampages, makes it an unfriendly watch even today. In fact, the film only just scraped by with an R-rating, after Scorsese desaturated the color of the blood in the final shootout at the MPAA's request. As a result, even in the stronger-stomached 1970s, it was attacked in some quarters: Time called it "thoroughly depressing realism," and the use of the then 13-year-old Jodie Foster was deemed as exploitative by some. It's also fair to say that the film was released as the tide started to change: the age of the blockbuster had arrived, with "Jaws" a nominee the previous year, and feel-good hit "Rocky" being the film that beat Bickle to the Oscar.
Why Was It Nominated? Again, the film probably went some way towards capturing the mood of a fundamentally depressed nation—the economy was only just starting to pull out of recession, the specter of Vietnam and Watergate lingered ("All The President's Men" was a nominee the same year), and crime rates were high. Rocky Balboa might have won out on Oscar night, but Travis Bickle was in some ways the more appropriate (anti-) hero for 1976. And for all the film's bleakness, he could be read as a hero—risking everything to save the innocent(ish) young girl and being hailed for his efforts in the end. It certainly helped that the film was critically praised to the skies—it had already won the Palme D'Or at Cannes the previous spring, confirming Scorsese as the next big thing, cleaned up at the critics' awards, and picked up stellar reviews of the kind that couldn't be ignored.
How Does It Hold Up? Impeccably. Whether you find this or "Raging Bull" the peak of Scorsese's career (some would argue for "Goodfellas," but they're wrong), there's no question that this is the director at the height of his powers, with a deep bench of a cast led by the titanic De Niro, and a hellishly atmospheric picture of NYC.
"An Unmarried Woman" (1978)
Why Was It A Surprising Nominee? It might have been the most daring period in Oscar history, but the late 1960s and 1970s were very much a boys' club when it came to the Academy Awards (especially in contrast to the early days of the Oscars, which were much more open to what was then broadly-deemed the "woman's picture" (see "Mrs. Miniver" or "Rebecca," to name two that won). Look at the films that were nominated or won Best Picture in this time period, and there's an awful lot of testosterone, from "Midnight Cowboy" and "Patton” through "The French Connection" and "The Godfather" films to "The Sting," "Rocky" and "The Deer Hunter," with only the occasional "Love Story" or "Julia" to break it up. Which makes "An Unmarried Woman" all the more of an outlier in the grand scheme of things. Following a wealthy New York woman (Jill Clayburgh, who was also nominated) adjusting to a new life after her husband leaves her for a younger woman), it hailed from writer/director Paul Mazursky, who'd received nominations for penning "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" and "Harry and Tonto," but who otherwise remained somewhat outside the establishment. Clayburgh, meanwhile, was mostly an unknown face, best known for playing a love interest in "Silver Streak," leaving supporting player Alan Bates the best known face in the film. And perhaps most importantly of all, this was a film not just about a woman, but about the sexual awakening of a middle-aged woman. You'd be lucky to get a film about that at an indie festival in 2014, let alone in wide release at the end of a decade dominated by the womanizing, hormonal movie brats.
Why Was It Nominated? In part, and like so many of these films, "An Unmarried Woman" came pre-lauded by an international film festival: it had played in-competition at Cannes, and Clayburgh had taken the Best Actress Prize there. The reviews were fairly sensational too, with Ebert calling Clayburgh's performance "luminous," and concluded by saying that Mazursky "won't settle for less than the truth and the humor, and the wonder of 'An Unmarried Woman' is that he gets it." But perhaps more importantly, it landed at the right time. A sea change was coming as the very masculine New Hollywood era came to an end, and in contrast to the films that had come before, the next few years would bring winners and nominees like "Kramer Vs. Kramer," "Norma Rae," "Ordinary People," "On Golden Pond," "Terms Of Endearment," "Places In The Heart," "Out Of Africa" and "The Color Purple," more sensitive films for a more sensitive 1980s. "An Unmarried Woman" helped to pave the way.
How Does It Hold Up? We're admittedly very fond of Mazursky, but even we would acknowledge that "An Unmarried Woman" has dated a bit, with the late '70s being a very different time for women than it is now in general. But there's enough universality to the picture, enough touching wit and funny pathos, that it'd be worth seeking out even without Clayburgh's marvelous performance.
"The Silence Of The Lambs" (1991)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? A pulpy thriller, from a director who was well-liked but never remotely registered on awards radars before, with a release on February 14th, 1991—a full thirteen months before the Oscar ceremony for which it was eligible—it's safe to say no one was thinking Oscar. The principle cast was promising, sure—Jodie Foster was a recent Oscar-winner for "The Accused," Anthony Hopkins was a British theater legend—but there didn't seem to be any reason to think it was an Oscar contender any more than, say, "Sleeping With The Enemy," which opened the week before. In fact, probably less: at least that film dealt with the serious issue of domestic violence, whereas "Silence Of The Lambs" didn't have much in the way of subtext. Instead, it was about a cannibalistic serial killer who helps an FBI agent capture a transgendered killer who skins women's corpses in order to make a "woman suit." It was a horror movie ("The Exorcist" being the only other such film to get an Oscar nod), positively saturated with gore (both Gene Hackman, who originally planned to direct and play Hannibal Lecter, and Michelle Pfeiffer had pulled out of the project because of concerns about the violence), and strong language. Oh, and there's a scene at which a character flicks semen at the heroine and tells her "I can smell your cunt." How was this ever going to be a serious contender for an awards that had been won two years earlier by "Driving Miss Daisy"?
Why Was It Nominated? It's a little confusing to this day, because "Silence Of The Lambs" wasn't just nominated, and it didn't just win Best Picture, it became one of only three films in history to win all the top five categories (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay). It wasn't lacking in competition either, with "JFK," "Beauty & The Beast" and "Bugsy" among the films nominated that year. There again may have been a certain extent to which it captured the zeitgeist—July 1991 saw the capture of Jeffrey Dahmer, a cannibalistic serial killer of 17 people, which helped to keep the film in the headlines. But it's probably more that it was deemed a rare and exceptional example of the genre, one of the most widely praised since Hitchcock passed. The film had been legitimized by a premiere at the 1991 Berlin Film Festival (where Jonathan Demme won the Silver Bear for Best Director), and simply managed to keep up the momentum for the year to come.
How Does It Hold Up? "The Silence Of The Lambs" certainly didn't date as badly as Michael Mann's earlier Thomas Harris adaptation, "Manhunter," which is a great film (arguably as good as 'Lambs' or better), but couldn't seem more '80s than if the main characters were all Rubik's Cubes and members of Duran Duran. But the countless imitators on both big screen and small have ensured that the shock of the new that came from the smart, beautifully-executed take on the serial killer genre has been dulled over the years. It's still a high water mark for the genre, but what was once innovative now can feel like cliché after the many rip-offs.