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The decade of the 1980s in cinema saw the return of studio-driven pictures, coming from the filmmaker-driven New Hollywood era of the 1970s. The period was when “high concept” films gained popularity, where movies were to be easily marketable and understandable, and, therefore, they had short cinematic plots that could be summarized in one or two sentences. The modern Hollywood blockbuster is the most popular film format from the 1980s. Producer Don Simpson is usually credited with the creation of the high-concept picture of the modern Hollywood blockbuster.

The decade also saw an increased amount of nudity in film and the increasing emphasis in the American industry on film franchises, especially in the science fiction, horror and action genres. Much of the reliance on these effect-driven blockbusters was due in part to the Star Wars films at the advent of this decade and the new cinematic effects it helped to pioneer. The teen comedy sub-genre also rose in popularity during this decade.

In the US, the PG-13 rating was introduced in 1984 to accommodate films that straddled the line between PG and R, which was mainly due to the controversies surrounding the violent content of the PG films Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins (both 1984).

Some have considered the 1980s in retrospect as one of the weaker decades for American cinema in terms of the quality of the films released. Quentin Tarantino (director of Pulp Fiction) has voiced his own view that the 1980s was one of the worst eras for American films. Film critic Kent Jones also shares this opinion. However, film theorist David Bordwell countered this notion, saying that the “megapicture mentality” was already existent in the 1970s, which is evident in the ten highest-grossing films of that decade, as well as with how many of the filmmakers part of New Hollywood were still able to direct many great pictures in the 1980s (Martin Scorsese, Brian de Palma, etc.)

Ordinary People

© 1980 – Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

53rd Academy Awards

The 53rd Academy Awards, honoring the best in film for 1980, were presented March 31, 1981, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. The ceremonies, which were presided over by Johnny Carson, were originally scheduled for the previous day but were postponed due to the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.

David Lynch’s The Elephant Man and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, with eight nominations each, had the most nominations of this year’s films. Their nominations included Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director. Michael Apted’s Coal Miner’s Daughter received seven nominations while Ordinary People and Tess received six.

The year’s winner of acting categories also marked as the closest span ever between the four winners, all of whom were under 40 when they won the award. Robert De Niro was 37 when awarded Best Actor, Sissy Spacek was 31 when awarded Best Actress, Timothy Hutton was 20 when awarded Best Supporting Actor, and Mary Steenburgen was 28 when awarded Best Supporting Actress. In addition, Hutton was the youngest ever Best Supporting Actor winner. His award was one of four that Ordinary People won, more than any other movie; the movie also won Best Picture, Best Director for Robert Redford and Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium for Alvin Sargent.

The lack of recognition for Christopher Tucker’s make-up work on The Elephant Man prompted the creation of the Academy Award for Best Makeup the following year.

Best Supporting Actress nominee Eva Le Gallienne was born in 1899, which made her the last acting nominee to be born in the nineteenth century. As of 2017, this is the earliest Oscars for which all five directing nominees are still living.


ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE Robert De NiroRaging Bull {“Jake LaMotta”}

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE Timothy HuttonOrdinary People {“Conrad Jarrett”}

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE Sissy Spacek — Coal Miner’s Daughter {“Loretta Lynn”}

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE Mary Steenburgen — Melvin and Howard {“Lynda Dummar”}

ART DIRECTION Tess — Art Direction: Pierre Guffroy, Jack Stephens

CINEMATOGRAPHY Tess — Geoffrey Unsworth, Ghislain Cloquet

COSTUME DESIGN Tess — Anthony Powell

DIRECTING Ordinary PeopleRobert Redford

DOCUMENTARY (Feature) From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China — Murray Lerner, Producer

DOCUMENTARY (Short Subject) Karl Hess: Toward Liberty — Roland Hallé and Peter W. Ladue, Producers

FILM EDITING Raging Bull — Thelma Schoonmaker

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears — Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

MUSIC (Original Score) Fame — Michael Gore

MUSIC (Original Song) “Fame” from Fame — Music by Michael Gore; Lyric by Dean Pitchford

BEST PICTURE Ordinary People — Ronald L. Schwary, Producer

SHORT FILM (Animated) The Fly — Ferenc Rofusz, Producer

SHORT FILM (Dramatic Live Action) The Dollar Bottom — Lloyd Phillips, Producer

SOUND The Empire Strikes Back — Bill Varney, Steve Maslow, Gregg Landaker, Peter Sutton

WRITING (Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium) Ordinary People — Alvin Sargent

WRITING (Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen) Melvin and Howard — Bo Goldman

SPECIAL ACHIEVEMENT AWARD (Visual Effects) The Empire Strikes Back — Brian Johnson, Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren, Bruce Nicholson


To Henry Fonda, the consummate actor, in recognition of his brilliant accomplishments and enduring contribution to the art of motion pictures.


Chariots of Fire

© 1981 Warner Bros.

54th Academy Awards

The 54th Academy Awards were presented March 29, 1982, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. The ceremonies were presided over by Johnny Carson.

Chariots of Fire was the surprise winner (with a leading 12 nominations, Reds had been expected to win) of the Best Picture Oscar. It was the first time in 13 years that a British film won the Academy’s top honor. The next year’s winner, Gandhi, was also a British production.

Henry Fonda won his only competitive Oscar this year, as Best Actor for On Golden Pond. At 76 years of age, Fonda became the oldest winner in the Best Actor category in Academy history. The only other nomination he received in his career was Best Actor for his performance in The Grapes of Wrath 41 years earlier – a record gap between acting nominations. His co-star, Katharine Hepburn, won her fourth Best Actress award, extending her own record for the most Best Actress wins by any actress.

This year’s nominations also marked the second time (after 1967) that three different films were nominated for the “Big Five” Academy Awards: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay. The three films were On Golden Pond, Atlantic City and Reds. However, none of them won the Best Picture prize, losing to Chariots of Fire. This also marked the first year that the award for Best Makeup was presented; the winner was Rick Baker for his work on An American Werewolf in London.

This was the last year until the 2005 Oscars where all five Best Picture nominations were also nominated for Best Director. Reds was the last film to gain nominations in all four acting categories until Silver Linings Playbook matched that feat at the 85th Academy Awards ceremony in 2013. Facilitated in part by their advanced ages at the time (77, 76, 74 and a “young” 56), this is also the most recent ceremony (as of the 2017 presentation of the 89th Academy Awards) for which the four acting award winners are all now deceased – though two of the four did live into their late 90s.

Chariots of Fire became the last film to win Best Picture and not win for directing until Driving Miss Daisy in 1990.


ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE Henry FondaOn Golden Pond {“Norman Thayer, Jr.”}

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE John Gielgud – Arthur {“Hobson”}

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE Katharine HepburnOn Golden Pond {“Ethel Thayer”}