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April 22, 2019

1976: The year that tilted the Academy Awards toward realism

February 8, 2019
Stallone, Sylvester in ‘Rocky (Getty Images)

Change was in the air, even 200 years after America’s hard-fought battle for independence.

While the nation was in the midst of its bicentennial, a discernible shift in film had furtively invaded movie theaters.

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The year was 1976, and the country was still reeling amid a recession stoked by the 1973-74 stock market crash. The unemployment rate in 1975 was high as 9% and the two-year recession that began in 1973 led to the loss of more than 2 million jobs.

Two years after Richard Nixon’s resignation came Jimmy Carter’s surprising election victory — and a sense of a new-era revolution. And nowhere was that more prevalent than in the 1976 crop of the Academy Awards’ Best Picture nominees.

While the previous year saw the likes of 18th-century costume drama “Barry Lyndon” and crowd-pleaser “Jaws” among the big-name contenders, the 49th Academy Awards’ five nominees mirrored Americans’ sense of disillusionment, fear, anger — and hope.

These five movies not only channeled the pent-up frustrations of an unfettered populace, they represented a new direction in filmmaking — one that would capture the tangibility of a grittier authenticity and usher in a new brand of neo-realism.

“Bound for Glory,” “Network,” “All the President’s Men,” “Taxi Driver” and “Rocky” were 1976’s five Best Picture nominees — a remarkable list of cinematic classics that encapsulate specific historical eras of a displaced America; not to mention, superb films that remain culturally and artistically relevant 43 years later.

Three of the five nominees chronicle the maturation — and in one case, de-evolution — of their protagonists. As Woody Guthrie in Dust Bowl-era Texas, David Carradine channels the folk singer’s physical and spiritual journey that impacted him to create “This Land Is Your Land.” Sylvester Stallone conveyed the American spirit as Rocky Balboa hoping to land his one shot of greatness in “Rocky,” and Travis Bickle, the troubled protagonist of Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” blurs the line between hero and villain.

While “Taxi Driver” emphasized the moral decay of New York City in the mid-1970s, “Rocky” director John G. Avildsen emphasized the abject poverty of Philadelphia to echo Balboa’s blue-collar roots while contrasting it to achieving the American Dream by staging the title bout in the city. And then there’s the political morass in Washington caused by the Nixon reign in “All the President’s Men.” “Bound for Glory” paints a glorified version of California that David Carradine’s impoverished Guthrie can’t possibly attain.

Even Paddy Chayefsky’s broadcast news satire “Network,” which foretold of the reality TV a generation before its actual birth, is at its heart a character-driven drama.

From a possible 20 acting nominations, the five films scooped up an incredible total of 13. Not surprisingly, all four winning performances derived from the Best Picture nominees. Jason Robards, channeling real-life Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, claimed the Best Supporting Actor award for “All the President’s Men.” Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight — playing William Holden’s disgraced wife — claimed the other three acting trophies.

At the end of the 49th Academy Awards ceremony, the films claimed an astounding 13 awards. In addition to the three acting awards, Chayefsky scored an Original Screenplay Oscar. “Rocky” took top honors for Best Picture and Best Director and another for editing. “All the President’s Men” took four awards, including Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction and Sound. Only “Taxi Driver” went home with no hardware.

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