THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘The Deer Hunter’ (1978)

In 1979, the 51st Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1978, and December 31, 1978, the awards were held on April 9. The ceremony was hosted by beloved comedian and talk show host Johnny Carson for the first time. Carson would host the awards for the next three consecutive years.

Hollywood legend John Wayne made his final ever public appearance to present the final award for Best Picture. Wayne would succumb to his battle with stomach cancer just two months later. The ceremony also marked the final public appearance of Jack Haley, the beloved star of The Wizard of Oz, who presented the award for Best Costume Design with his The Wizard of Oz co-star Ray Bolger.

The show’s producer Jack Haley Jr. hit upon a brilliant idea for the ceremony by devising a special 10-minute long medley of great movies songs the Academy failed to nominate for Best Original Song. The song, entitled “Not Even Nominated/Oscar’s Only Human,” was met with disdain from the Academy’s music branch, who demanded the number be dropped from the ceremony. Haley threatened to quit his position and pull Carson from hosting duties, if the Academy bowed to this pressure. In the end, the number went ahead and was performed by Sammy Davis Jr. and Steve Lawrence. It was met with a thunderous applause and a standing ovation from the audience.

Two films led the field this year, with nine nominations each. Warren Beatty’s fantasy/comedy Heaven Can Wait became only the second film in history to have dual-directors nominated for Best Director, with both Beatty and Buck Henry sharing their nomination. Beatty became the first person since Orson Wells to earn acting, directing, producing, and screenwriting nominations in the same year. Unfortunately, the film would go home with only one Oscar for Best Art Direction.

The night really belonged to the Vietnam War drama The Deer Hunter, which received five Academy Awards from its nine nominations including Best Picture, Best Director for Michael Cimino, Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken, and Best Film Editing. The controversial film was met by backlash, with the Los Angeles chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War protesting outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on the evening of the Academy Awards. Protesters held placards featuring slogans like “No Oscars for racism” and “The Deer Hunter a bloody lie.” The film’s screenwriter, Deric Washburn, also claimed his limousine was pelted with stones upon his arrival. The protests resulted in 13 arrests, after police made the decision to end the demonstration.

The nominees:
Coming Home
The Deer Hunter
Heaven Can Wait
Midnight Express
An Unmarried Woman

The winner:
The Deer Hunter

Based in part on an unproduced screenplay called The Man Who Came to Play by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker, The Deer Hunter is the epic war drama about a trio of Americans whose lives are changed forever by the Vietnam War. Structured in five distinct sections, contrasting life at home and in war, the film begins in Pennsylvania where close friends Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), and Stan (John Cazale) are celebrating the wedding of their friend Steve (John Savage) before leaving for Vietnam. Soon enough, the trio of friends is experiencing the horrors of the Vietnam War, culminating in their capture and imprisonment by Vietcong soldiers. Their time fighting to survive will permanently scar each of them, in differing ways. As the war comes to an end, and the men return to the lives they left on hold, each will struggle to forget their time in Vietnam and grapple with their attempts to return to civilian life.

Why did it win?
After a couple of years of avoiding the more heavily dramatic side of cinema, the Academy’s love of gripping and affecting drama came roaring back with their choice of The Deer Hunter for Best Picture. A powerful and disturbing insight into the devastating consequences of the Vietnam War, the film would herald the beginning of a decade-long string of films concerned with America’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam, and the long-term damage it would have on a whole generation of Americans.

The film was shrouded in controversy, namely over its depiction of the Vietcong soldiers as cruel and torturous monsters, and that infamous Russian roulette scene, which may or may not have been an entire fabrication for dramatic purposes. Perhaps this controversy only added to its appeal with the Academy. This was the 1970s, after all, and they were far more daring in their choices for the Academy Awards. By awarding a film so critical of one of the most unpopular and catastrophic wars in American history, the Academy were making a clear statement on their agreement with the film’s messages and themes.

But there’s perhaps more to the narrative of The Deer Hunter winning Best Picture than it just being a groundbreaking and bold choice by the Academy. It seems they may have also been swayed by a shrewd and exhaustive Oscar campaign, organised by someone who wasn’t even involved with the film. Producer and industry mogul Allan Carr became so enamoured with The Deer Hunter, he used his incredible networking abilities to promote the film during awards season. Carr threw lavish parties at which he raved about the film, and encouraged anyone who would listen to vote for the film. It is widely believed he did everything that could possibly be done to promote the film to Academy voters, and clearly, it paid off.

Adding to its appeal, The Deer Hunter was also released via a bold and unique strategy to create buzz and interest within the industry and with the general public. The film debuted at one single theatre in both New York and Los Angeles for one week only in December 1978, qualifying the film for Oscar consideration. Universal Pictures only expanded the film to wide release after the nominations were announced in February. This daring strategy is still employed by Oscar contenders to this day. After receiving rave reviews and nine nominations, the interest in the film was at a fever pitch. It would go on to gross $48 million at the U.S. box-office, and end the year as the ninth highest-grossing film of the year.

The film received widespread acclaim from critics, with many calling it the greatest piece of American cinema since The Godfather. The Chicago Sun-Times called the film “one of the most emotionally shattering films ever made,” while the New York Daily News raved that the film “brings home the true horror of that senseless conflict in a way that the 6 O’Clock News never could.”

In a rather light year, it was relatively easy for something as powerful and controversial as The Deer Hunter to take Best Picture. It stood as the chance for the Academy to send a message which shared the public’s sentiments on the Vietnam War, and, coupled with the film’s enormous critical and commercial success, it became the obvious choice for Best Picture.

Did it deserve to win?
The Deer Hunter represents another sublime example of 1970s cinema you cannot possibly say was not deserving of winning Best Picture. The film is far from perfect. It drags on a little longer than it needs to. Its narrative style is somewhat messy and disjointed. There are many questions surrounding its historical accuracy. But those are minor quibbles in such a gripping, disturbing, and shattering piece of cinema that still packs an enormous punch in 2018.

The film confronts its audience by daring to showcase the brutality, devastation, and destruction of the Vietnam War in a manner never before seen on-screen. Director Michael Cimino crafts an uncompromising vision of war and its impact on those involved that is genuinely difficult to watch. This is by no means an easy film to view. It’s one of those films you’re unlikely to rush out and watch again anytime soon. The film is unflinching in showing its audience the realities of war and its horrendous consequences for those involved.

The Deer Hunter is an ambitious project. Its depiction of the harrowing nature of the Vietnam War is unsettling and unnerving, but therein lies its true power. That power is elevated even further by the performances from its impeccable cast. It may be bold to suggest, but this may well be De Niro’s finest work. His layered performance and character arc are utterly glorious to behold, and he gives Mike such strength and determination. Likewise with Walken, whose performance is genuinely devastating, and he deserved that Best Supporting Actor Oscar. The film also marked the arrival of Meryl Streep, and the first of her 21 Oscar nominations, as Nick’s beleaguered girlfriend. Streep is typically magnificent, and you cannot take your eyes off her when she’s on-screen. The film ultimately delivers a glimpse of the majesty yet to come from her career.

And what is there to say about that game of Russian roulette that hasn’t already been said. It’s an iconic moment in cinema that still has the power to hold its audience in agonising suspense. It’s tough to watch, especially if you know the outcome, but, dear god, is it a masterful sequence of cinema. Yes, I can understand the controversy around its lack of historical accuracy. And yes, it doesn’t portray the Vietcong soldiers in a particularly positive light. But what I take from this sequence is it merely being a metaphor for the random and pointless violence of war, in general. It highlights how superfluous and redundant war really is. To me, that’s the film’s most powerful and important message.

The Deer Hunter marked a new era of anti-war films, and it still stands as one of the finest pieces of cinema of this genre. You cannot help but be affected by the deep impact its narrative has on its audience. War is hell, and few films showcase this ideal better than Cimino’s opus. It would stand as his one true masterpiece, after his career took a nosedive with the disaster that was Heaven’s Gate. It’s a shame we never got to see his further potential, but he’s gifted us one of the greatest films of all time, and one of the most deserving of the Academy’s top prize for Best Picture.