It was no 1939, but the Oscar race for 1975’s Best Picture did offer an embarrassment of riches: Of the five nominated films, four still hold up as grade-A classics: Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Nashville, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The fifth, Barry Lyndon, is merely a less-acclaimed work from a brilliant director (Stanley Kubrick). But what about the also-rans? Here are five that, in a different year, and with hindsight, coulda, shoulda, and maybe woulda (and we’re not even counting The Rocky Horror Picture Show).
THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING
Nobody expected greatness from John Huston in 1975. His last decent film had been 1972’s Fat City; his last indisputable classic was 1951’s The African Queen. Costars Sean Connery and Michael Caine weren’t exactly prospering either; Connery’s career, in particular, was still recovering from the bizarro 1974 sci-fi flick Zardoz. And all three of them involved in an adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling story? Come on.
The epic expanse, tight storytelling, and moving denouement of The Man Who Would Be King, then, came as something of a shock. Connery and Caine — yes, they should have made more movies together — are unforgettably right as two British soldiers in the 1880s who stumble across a lost Asian kingdom and are mistaken for a god and his sidekick. Huston, for his part, uses all his filmmaking skills to create a teeming canvas with two exquisitely mortal humans at its center. The result is one of the best adventure movies ever made — and one of the wisest.
MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL
Okay, maybe it would have been too much to expect the Academy to nominate the second film outing from the bad boys of British TV comedy (the first, And Now for Something Completely Different, merely re-purposed their best BBC skits for celluloid). Still, how many scenes from this hilarious, ramshackle skewering of the King Arthur legend can you rattle off? Right: ”We are the knights who say ‘Ni!”’ ”What … is your favorite color?” ”She’s got huge tracts of land.” ”Bring out your dead!” (”I’m not dead … ”) ”I fart in your general direction.” ”It’s just a flesh wound.” ”What, the curtains?”
Perhaps most satisfyingly, Monty Python and the Holy Grail accurately depicts the Arthurian era as a bloody, muddy, uncivilized chaos. Low budget aside, the Pythons were making the razor-sharp point that history cloaks its major figures in an opulence that never really existed. Or as the peasant says, explaining how he can tell who’s the king, ”He hasn’t got s— all over him.”
The 1970s saw plenty of downbeat dramas and amoral private-eye updates — both, perhaps, represented the paranoid legacy of Watergate as refracted through pop entertainment. But Arthur Penn’s Night Moves may be the biggest and best bum-out of them all. Gene Hackman plays an L.A. detective hired to chase down a Hollywood brat. The trail soon spreads out to encompass smuggling, murder, and incest. Even more than Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Night Moves finds everything and everyone to be riddled with guilt — even the hero is reduced to peeping on his own errant wife.