Art KO’d by commerce in ’77

New era of escapist fare signaled 30 years ago, when Globes were rocked by 'Rocky'

NEW YORK — The upcoming 30th anniversary of the 1977 Golden Globes recalls the tragedy that hung over the ceremony that year. Peter Finch’s award for actor in a motion picture drama came posthumously, 17 days after he passed away. Freddie Prinze, the 22-year-old nominee for TV actor in a musical or comedy, died the very morning of the ceremony of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

But beyond those sad recollections, the 1977 Golden Globes offered a harbinger of how audience tastes in film were changing.

The first sign came during the nominations, when Martin Scorsese’s provocative “Taxi Driver” failed to net a spot in the drama category, giving way to such films as “Bound for Glory,” “Rocky” and “Voyage of the Damned.” Still, the front-runners for the Globe were two pointed cultural commentaries: “Network,” the scathing satire about the television industry written by Paddy Chayevsky and directed by Sidney Lumet (both of whom would win Globes for their efforts) and Watergate drama “All the President’s Men.”

With expectations running high for “Network” and “Men,” 30-year-old Sylvester Stallone had already removed his black tie when James Stewart and Deborah Kerr announced that “Rocky,” the crowdpleaser he wrote and starred in, had won top drama honors.

“Isn’t that what the American spirit is all about?” asks Judy Solomon, who was the president of the HFPA at the time. “That the underdog wins? It was really unbelievable. You could see it on his face. He was jumping all over, hugging everybody. He was articulate and absolutely adorable.”

The sixth installment of the “Rocky” series, “Rocky Balboa,” is due out in theaters this month, perhaps obscuring the achievements of the original.

“‘Rocky’ does hold up the best as a piece of entertainment,” says Michael Sragow, film critic for the Baltimore Sun. “It was unabashedly emotional filmmaking of an older era, mixed with grit and urban color. It’s still charming if you can scrape away the memories of everything that has followed.”

More importantly, “Rocky,” which also won the Oscar for best picture, signaled a change in Hollywood’s direction. “Star Wars,” released in 1977, became a smash from another galaxy, a bellwether of the cynicism of the Watergate era giving way to the escapism of the ’80s.

To some extent, “Rocky” was part of that bridge between eras.

“What really distinguished ‘Rocky’ at the time was that it was a ‘little’ film,” Salon.com critic Allen Barra says. “The hook everyone used in writing about it was that it was to the Oscars what ‘Rocky’ was to boxing, an unheralded underdog who came out of nowhere to win the title. At the time of its release, ‘Rocky’ was everything a popular movie wasn’t supposed to be: low-budget, lacking in big stars, a boxing movie, and written by and starring an Italian kid from South Philadelphia who made Arnold (Schwarzenegger) sound like Cary Grant.”

Though not as rife with meaning, the 1977 musical/comedy nominations also showed the clash of tastes. “The Ritz,” Mel Brooks’ “Silent Movie” and “The Return of the Pink Panther” were nominated over “Silver Streak,” which teamed Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor for the first time.

Though the third version of “A Star Is Born,” starring Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand, earned Globes for both leads and the picture itself, Barra says the chemistry between the two stars “was like mixing oil and seltzer.”

The fifth musical/comedy nominee was a period gangster movie starring kids, Alan J. Parker’s “Bugsy Malone.” Steve Vineburg, film critic for the Boston Phoenix, remembers “Malone” as “one of the creepiest movies I’ve ever seen. It reminded me of Graham Greene’s famous review of Shirley Temple in which he called her bait for child molesters.”

“Bugsy Malone” was recognized ahead of a far more vulgar but funnier kid picture, “The Bad News Bears,” which filmmaker Ethan Coen has called the only good baseball movie ever made. But “The Bad News Bears” was too cynical, too rude, to be celebrated. It, too, stands a reflection of ’70s sensibilities, a period whose time was expiring.