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The decade of the 1970s opened with Hollywood facing a financial slump, reflecting the monetary woes of the nation as a whole during the first half of the decade. Despite this, the 1970s proved to be a benchmark decade in the development of cinema, both as an art form and as a business. With young filmmakers taking greater risks and restrictions regarding language and sexuality lifting, Hollywood produced some of its most critically acclaimed and financially successful films since its “golden era.”
In the years previous to 1970, Hollywood had begun to cater to the younger generation with films such as The Graduate. This proved a folly when anti-war films like R. P. M. and The Strawberry Statement became major box-office flops. Even solid films with bankable stars, like the Pearl Harbor epic Tora! Tora! Tora!, flopped, leaving studios in dire straits financially. Unable to repay financiers, studios began selling off land, furniture, clothing, and sets acquired over years of production. Nostalgic fans bid on merchandise and collectibles ranging from Judy Garland’s sparkling red shoes to MGM’s own back lots.
More of the successful films were those based in the harsh truths of war, rather than the excesses of the 1960s. Films like the Francis Ford Coppola-scripted Patton, starring George C. Scott as the World War II general, and Robert Altman’s MASH, about a Korean War field hospital, were major box-office draws in 1970. Honest, old-fashioned films like Summer of ’42, and the Erich Segal adaptation, Love Story, were commercial and critical hits.
Sean Connery returned to the role of James Bond in 1971 in Diamonds Are Forever after George Lazenby filled the role in 1969. Roger Moore succeeded Connery in 1973 with an adaptation of Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die which was the most successful of his Bond films in terms of admissions. Live and Let Die was followed by an adaptation of The Man with the Golden Gun in 1974, which at the time garnered the lowest box office taking of any Bond film before it. After its release Harry Saltzman co-owner of Danjaq with Albert R. Broccoli sold his half to United Artists causing a three-year gap until the next Bond film, the longest gap since the start of the franchise in 1962. The series picked up again in 1977 with The Spy Who Loved Me and ended the decade with Moonraker in 1979, which was the highest grossing Bond film (not adjusting for inflation) of all time until GoldenEye in 1995.
An adaptation of an Arthur Hailey novel would prove to be one of the most notable films of 1970, and would set the stage for a major trend in 1970s cinema. The film, Airport, featured a complex plot, characters, and an all-star cast of Hollywood A-listers and legends. Airport followed an airport manager trying to keep a fictional Chicago airport operational during a blizzard, as well as a bomb plot to blow up an airplane. The film was a major critical and financial success, helping pull Universal Studios into the black for the year. The film earned senior actress Helen Hayes an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and garnered many other nominations in both technical and talent categories. The success of the film launched several other disaster films, many of which following the same blueprint of major stars, a melodramatic script, and great suspense.
Three Airport sequels followed in 1974, 1977, and 1979, each successor making less money than the last. 1972 brought The Poseidon Adventure, which starred a young Gene Hackman leading an all-star cast to safety in a capsized luxury liner. The film earned an Academy Award for visual effects (and Best Original Song for “The Morning After”), as well as numerous nominations, including one for its notable supporting star, Shelley Winters, but its sequel in 1979 was far less successful. The Towering Inferno teamed Steve McQueen and Paul Newman against a fire in a San Francisco skyscraper. The film cost a whopping $14 million to produce (expensive for its time), and won Academy Awards for Cinematography, Film Editing, and Best Original Song. The same year, the epic Earthquake featured questionable effects (camera shake and models) to achieve a destructive 9.9 earthquake in Los Angeles. Despite this, the film was one of the most successful of its time, earning $80 million at box office. By the late 1970s, the novelty had worn off and the disasters had become less exciting. 1977 brought a terrorist targeting a Rollercoaster, 1978 a Swarm of bees, and a less-than-threatening Meteor in 1979.
The early 1970s also brought a rebirth of gritty crime film, three years after the influential Bullitt. William Friedkin’s The French Connection, starring Gene Hackman as a drug detective and Sidney Lumet’s Serpico, starring Al Pacino in the true-life story of an honest cop who fought corruption, were two of the most famous ones. Films like Get Carter featured gratuitous nudity, while Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking A Clockwork Orange featured much physical and sexual violence to complement its complex story. African American filmmakers also found success in the 1970s with such hits as Shaft and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Like other sequels in the 1970s, Shaft went on to have two more adventures, each less successful than the last.
An adaptation of a Mario Puzo novel, The Godfather, was a box-office and critical success in 1972. The three-hour epic followed a Mafia boss, played by Marlon Brando, through his life of crime. Beyond the violence and drama were themes of love, pride, and greed. The Godfather went on to earn $134 million at American box office, and $245 million throughout the world, becoming the highest-grossing film of all time. It won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay. Its director Francis Ford Coppola was passed over in favor of Bob Fosse and his musical, Cabaret, which also earned an Oscar for its star, Liza Minnelli. The Godfather Part II followed in 1974, with roughly the same principal cast and crew, earning Oscars for star Robert De Niro, its director, composer, screenwriters and art directors. The film also earned the Best Picture Oscar for that year.
Throughout the 1970s, the horror film developed into a lucrative genre of film. It began in 1973 with the terrifying The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin and starring the young Linda Blair. The film saw massive success, and the first of several sequels was released in 1977. 1976 brought the equally creepy suspense thriller, Marathon Man, about a man who becomes the target of a former Nazi dentist’s torment after his brother dies. The same year, the Devil himself made an appearance in The Omen, about the spawn of Satan. 1978’s Halloween was a precursor to the “slasher” films of the 1980s and 1990s with its psychopathic Michael Myers. Cult horror films were also popular in the 1970s, such as Wes Craven’s early gore films Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, as well as Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
The blockbuster was born in 1975. While the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist was among the top five grossing films of the 1970s, the first film given the blockbuster distinction was 1975’s Jaws. Released on June 20, the film about a series of horrific deaths related to a massive great white shark was director Steven Spielberg’s first big-budget Hollywood production, coming in at $9 million in cost. The film slowly grew in ticket sales and became one of the most profitable films of its time, ending with a $260 million gross in the United States alone. The film won Academy Awards for its skillful editing, chilling score, and sound recording. It was also nominated for Best Picture that year, though it lost to Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (which also won acting awards for Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher). It spawned the successful sequel, Jaws 2 in 1978, which featured the same cast, but without Steven Spielberg. Another tailor-made blockbuster, Dino De Laurentiis’ King Kong was released, but to less than stellar success. King Kong did mark the first time a film was booked to theaters before a release date, a common practice today.
The massive success of Jaws was eclipsed just two years later by another legendary blockbuster and film franchise. The George Lucas science-fiction film Star Wars hit theater screens in May 1977, and became a major hit, growing in ticket sales throughout the summer and the rest of the year. In time earning some $460 million, the good versus evil fantasy set in space was not soon surpassed. The film’s breathtaking visual effects won an Academy Award. The film also won for John Williams’s uplifting score, as well as art direction, costume design, film editing, and sound. Star Wars effectively removed any specter of studio bankruptcy that had haunted the studios since early in the decade. When a television film, Star Wars Holiday Special, was released as a spin-off from Star Wars in 1978; it failed to receive the status of the original film, and was deemed a flop. It would be two years until the Star Wars series would be revived with The Empire Strikes Back. Another success in visual effects came the same year as Star Wars, with Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, another blockbuster and alien contact set in the wilderness. For the picture, Spielberg received his first Oscar nomination for directing. A year later the most iconic superhero was brought to the screen in Superman, who was portrayed by classically trained actor Christopher Reeve. It was met by resounding praise for strong performances and its epic scope which resulted in numerous sequels and is regarded as one of the greatest superhero films ever made, beginning a new era of superhero films.
The success of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall in 1977 stirred a new trend in film-making. Annie Hall, a love story about a depressed comedian and a free-spirited woman, was followed with more sentimental films, including Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl, An Unmarried Woman starring Jill Clayburgh, the autobiographical Lillian Hellman story, Julia, starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, and 1978’s Heaven Can Wait and International Velvet.
Younger audiences were also beginning to be the focus of cinema, after the huge blockbusters that had attracted them back to the theater. John Travolta became popular in the pop-culture landmark films, Saturday Night Fever, which introduced Disco to middle America, and Grease, which recalled the world of the 1950s. Comedy was also given new life in the irreverent Animal House, set on a college campus during the 1960s. Up in Smoke, starring Cheech & Chong, was another irreverent comedy about marijuana use became popular among teenagers. The new television comedy program, “Saturday Night Live”, launched the careers of several of its comedians, such as Chevy Chase, who co-starred in the 1978 hit Foul Play with Goldie Hawn.
The decade closed with two films chronicling the Vietnam War, Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Both films focused on the horrors of war and the psychological damage caused by such horrors. Christopher Walken and director Michael Cimino earned Oscars for their work on the film, which earned a Best Picture Academy Award. Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep were also nominated for their work in The Deer Hunter. Apocalypse Now won for cinematography and sound, and earned nominations for Robert Duvall and Coppola. Hal Ashby’s Coming Home portrayed life for Vietnam veterans. Actor Jon Voight won an Academy Award for his role in the film.
1979 saw the poignant Kramer vs. Kramer, the inspiring Norma Rae, and the nuclear thriller, The China Syndrome. Alien scared summer film-going audiences of 1979 with its horrible monster from outer space, achieving similar success that Jaws had seen four years earlier. Meanwhile, The Onion Field and …And Justice for All focused on the failures of the American judicial system. The year ended with Hal Ashby’s subtle black comedy Being There and The Muppet Movie, a family film based on the Jim Henson puppet characters.
The Academy Awards of the 1970s
43rd Academy Awards
The 43rd Academy Awards were presented April 15, 1971, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles. The host was Don Rickles.
It was during this ceremony that George C. Scott became the first actor to reject an Oscar, claiming that the Academy Awards were “a two-hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons.”
With her Best Supporting Actress win, Helen Hayes became the first performer to win Oscars in both lead and supporting