Director Milos Forman’s pitch-black comedy in which the crazies take over the madhouse is an anti-authoritarian classic, an angry yet often playful insurrection against “the system” led with charm and charisma by Jack Nicholson‘s Randle Patrick McMurphy, a self-described “goddamn marvel of modern science,” and countered with cruelty and cunning by Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Mildred Ratched. Alternately hilarious and harrowing, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest may inspire you to start a revolution of your own — or at least take the day off to go fishing (or perhaps arrange for an orgy). While it’s definitely Nicholson and Fletcher’s ball game, Brad Dourif is the pinch hitter with his terrific performance as the stuttering Billy Bibbit (the go-to scene-stealing character role in the stage adaptation as well); Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd also have good bits as the delusional Martini and the combative Taber, respectively. The film took home all five major Oscars (Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Adapted Screenplay) in 1976, an accomplishment that hadn’t happened since 1934 with It Happened One Night and wouldn’t happen again until 1992 with The Silence of the Lambs — though, personally, we think they could’ve thrown in Best Supporting Actor for Dourif as well.
This lavish historical drama chronicles the last years of China’s Ching Dynasty through the life of Emperor Pu Ti (John Lone), from his ascent to the throne at age three to his incarceration and “participation” in the Communist Re-Education Program to his final years as a simple peasant who visits the Forbidden City as just another tourist. The Last Emperor might ultimately be a little too ambitious for its own good and the flashback/flash-forward narrative is sometimes hard to follow, but the film has nothing if not passion and conviction, making for an exciting, fascinating epic that’s often hypnotic in its visual beauty. Sumptuously directed (as always) by Last Tango in Paris director Bernardo Bertolucci with an almost Kubrickian sense of attention to detail; Lone is very effective as he underplays the title role, always bringing a sense of humble humanity to the man behind the throne. A stunning cinematic accomplishment, if not a perfect one, and the winner of nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Jane Campion’s more than a little creepy/icky mid-19th century drama stars Holly Hunter as Ada McGrath, a mute Scotswoman who expresses herself through her expert piano playing and sign language interpreted by her young daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin). Ada is sold into marriage by her father to a New Zealand frontiersman (Sam Neill) but soon embarks on a bizarre (and, yeah, a bit creepy/icky) affair with George Baines (Harvey Keitel), a forester and retired sailor who has since adopted the customs of the Maori, the country’s indigenous Polynesian people. The Piano is, honestly, more of a curiosity piece than a “great movie,” though Campion definitely scores points for originality (and a sense of wild, creative abandon) — even though, as with most of her films, her aggressive feminist agenda sometimes gets in the way of things like, well, relatable characters and motivations. Winner of three Oscars: Best Actress (Hunter), Best Supporting Actress (Paquin) and Best Original Screenplay; at age 11, Paquin was the second-youngest actress to receive the award after Tatum O’Neal, who was 10 when she won for Paper Moon. The film’s real “winner,” though, is Michael Nyman, whose exquisite piano score went on to be a bestselling soundtrack album.
“Hud — The Man with the Barbed Wire Soul!” Director Martin Ritt’s scrappy modern-day western chronicles the ongoing feud between Homer Bannon (Melvyn Douglas), a strict and unyielding rancher, and his son Hud (Paul Newman), a rowdy, seemingly amoral and potentially dangerous free spirit, with Homer’s teenage grandson and Hud’s nephew Lonnie (Brandon De Wilde) caught in the middle as he’s preparing to Become a Man. This adaptation (and modern-day updating) of Larry McMurtry’s novel is a hoot and a holler, with both Newman and Douglas delivering passionate and combative performances as they constantly try to one-up each other (Douglas’ Oscar-winning work here definitely has an air of “Lemme show ya how it’s done, kid”); Newman’s desire to play this rambunctious “bourbon cowboy” apparently came out of frustration over the censors messing with two of his previous releases, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth. Nominated for seven Oscars and won three: Best Actress (Patricia Neal, though many have argued that the brevity of her role as Bannon housekeeper Alma Brown made it more suitable for Supporting Actress), Best Supporting Actor (Melvyn Douglas) and Best Cinematography (Black & White).
“Oh forgive me Paul for prattling away and making everything all oogy.” Director Rob Reiner‘s yang to Stand by Me‘s yin, Misery stars James Caan as Paul Sheldon, a successful author of romance novels who gets into a car accident after finishing what will be the final book in his bestselling series about a woman named Misery; he’s nursed back to health (sort of) by Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), his “number one fan” — and a completely psychotic lunatic who proceeds to verbally, emotionally and physically abuse him (to say the least) for months as he’s held prisoner in her isolated house in the snowy Colorado mountains. Based on the novel by Stephen King, Misery is a B-movie chamber drama that’s upgraded to the level of crowd-pleasing pop art thanks to a terrific performance by Caan, who does wonders with what’s little more than just a reactionary role — and a low-legendary one by Bates, who takes a completely ridiculous character and turns her into one of cinema’s most notorious (and quotable) villains. Bates won the Oscar for Best Actress; the role was offered to both Anjelica Huston (who turned it down due to conflicts with The Grifters) and Bette Midler (notch) before it went to her.