More than a decade after the demise of the classic studio system, Hollywood and the Oscars found themselves in flux. In 1975 the town grappled with a move away from artifice toward realness, underpinned by an upswing in gritty, modestly budgeted filmmaking from such directors as Bob Rafelson, Hal Ashby, Sam Peckinpah and Dennis Hopper.
Granted, the safe stuff still had a market (indeed, family pic “Benji” was No. 3 on 1975’s box-office chart, topping the randy sex romp “Shampoo”), but a hunger persisted for films that not only provided an escape from the upheaval outside the theater’s doors but also acknowledged it.
Czech emigre Milos Forman’s second U.S. feature, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” based on the novel by counterculture staple Ken Kesey, featured Jack Nicholson as pugnacious dropout Randle McMurphy. The independently financed film was produced and distributed by United Artists, the scrappy mini-major that would enjoy a run of picture winners in the ’70s that includes 1976’s “Rocky” and 1977’s “Annie Hall.”
The producers, including 31-year-old Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz, were attracted by the youthful skew of Forman’s American debut, 1971 cult pic “Taking Off,” correctly intuiting that the helmer would know just how to play the lead character’s establishment-baiting antics.
Robert Altman, a Midwesterner who had been toiling in the ’50s and ’60s mostly on television dramas, kicked the decade off with the Oscar-nominated “MASH” (1970), the helmer’s satirical take on the Korean conflict, though strong parallels with the ongoing struggle in Vietnam were hard to miss. The film was a Palme d’Or winner at Cannes and a major hit, second only to “Airport” on the B.O. chart.
Altman earned his second Oscar nom for what was long considered his masterpiece, “Nashville,” a sprawling drama of Americans’ quests for showbiz fame set within the country music biz. Its biggest champion was New York critic Pauline Kael, who gushed about the film based on a rough cut and a reading of the script.
Following Kael’s lead, all three major New York-based critics organizations gave the Paramount pic — which fell far short of “MASH” at the wickets — their picture and director prizes (although Altman did have to share the National Board of Review honors with Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon”).
The nascent Los Angeles Critics Assn., far from Kael’s sway and eager to distinguish itself from its East Coast counterparts, snubbed “Nashville” in its first year and awarded its picture award — in a tie — to “Cuckoo’s Nest” and Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon,” with Lumet receiving the direction prize.
“Dog Day Afternoon,” about the real-life heist of a Gotham bank by a desperate criminal (played by Al Pacino, reuniting with the director after 1973 cop drama “Serpico”), was one in a string of early bigscreen successes for Lumet, who, like Altman, cut his teeth on TV dramas.
“Dog Day Afternoon” was one of two films Warners released at year’s end in a bid for award attention. The other, from a Bronx-born director who had moved his home base to Britain, was a meticulously detailed adaptation of “Barry Lyndon,” the William Thackeray novel about an 18th-century rogue.
Kubrick, who made his big-budget debut on 1960’s epic B.O. hit “Spartacus,” had become something of a visionary, having reinvented each genre he tackled with such rigorously crafted efforts as “Dr. Strangelove,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “A Clockwork Orange,” for which he had earned his first three helming bids.
The Directors Guild of America selected as its five nominees Forman; Lumet; Altman; Kubrick; and a 29-year-old college dropout who had spent his formative years on small-screen projects, including a telefilm about a murderous big-rig driver titled “Duel.” Steven Spielberg took a pulpy horror novel and a balky mechanical shark and turned out the prototype for the summer blockbuster. “Jaws,” only Spielberg’s second feature, became the first film to surpass $100 million in domestic rentals.
Hollywood pundits were expecting a repeat of the DGA’s picks when the Oscar noms were revealed, but an apparent backlash against the commercial success of “Jaws” had emerged. Spielberg couldn’t mask his disappointment (his shocked reaction to the nominations was captured by a TV crew) when he was passed over in favor of Italian master Federico Fellini.
Fellini, who had previously received three unsuccessful helming noms, earned his latest bid for “Amarcord.” The film had won the 1974 foreign-language Oscar a year before its U.S. release, but under Acad rules at that time the director, cast and crew were eligible for noms.
“Jaws,” however, did earn a picture nom, along with the films of the other four helming nominees, but DGA and Golden Globe winner Forman (and most of the other major “Cuckoo’s Nest” nominees) entered Oscar night the overwhelming favorite — bolstered by solid B.O. into early 1976.
The director, a newly naturalized U.S. citizen, showed up at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with his young twin sons, who were in for a treat. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” swept the Acad’s top five categories — actor, actress, screenplay, picture and director — a feat that had only been achieved once before, in 1934, by another European helmer, Sicily-born Frank Capra, and “It Happened One Night.”