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Chapter 38: The Godfather, Part II

The Oscars. From the beginning, it was clear that the Oscar race for best picture of 1974 was between two films: Godfather, Part II and Chinatown. As pointed out in these pages (Libertarian Forum, March, 1975), Godfather, a marvelous film, clearly deserved the award. In contrast, the morbid, cynical Chinatown (neatly skewered in Libertarian Review by Barbara Branden) was the darling of the avant-garde intellectuals, serving as it did as an “anti-hero” reversal of the great detective films of the 1940s.

Part of the excitement of Oscar night is to watch the race between the top pictures build up as the minor awards are allocated. From the beginning of the night, it became clear that Chinatown was losing out, as it was defeated in one minor award after another. Unfortunately, this meant that the cool, subtle, and nuanced performance of the beautiful Faye Dunaway in Chinatown lost out to Ellen Burstyn’s hammy, tearful performance in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore as Best Actress, but the consolation was the clear meaning that Chinatown had had it. Sure enough, Godfather, Part II swept the boards, gaining its deserved triumph as Best Picture, and the directorial award for Francis Ford Coppola.

While justice triumphed splendidly in the Best Picture and Best Director awards, the splendid Al Pacino unfortunately lost out in the race for Best Actor; so too did the intellectuals, who were rooting for Jack Nicholson’s anti-hero detective in Chinatown. Instead, the old Hollywood penchant for boozy sentimentality won out, with old favorite Art Carney winning the award for the piece of fluff, Harry and Tonto. Fortunately, however, the expected sentimentality did not triumph for the Best Supporting Actor award. Fred Astaire, who has always been a poor actor, was particularly weak and even grotesque in a minor role in The Towering Inferno; but the scuttlebutt had it that he would win anyway, in an orgy of collective Hollywood guilt for not having given him an Oscar in the 1930s for his glorious dancing in the famous Astaire movies of that era. However, justice again triumphed, as the award went to one of the finest young actors in recent years, Robert DeNiro’s “proto-Brando” young godfather in Godfather, Part II. Sentimentality did triumph in the award to Ingrid Bergman for Best Supporting Actress in Murder on the Orient Express, in expiation of Hollywood’s collective guilt for casting Miss Bergman into outer darkness thirty years ago for an act of personal “immorality” which would now be considered positively square and old-fashioned. However, in Miss Bergman’s case, there was no harm done, since hers was probably the best performance out of a rather poor lot.

And so, the classical aesthetic has won out over its avant-garde enemies for the third straight year: in the awards to Godfather in 1973, in The Sting exorcising The Exorcist last year, and now in the victory of Part II. With luck, maybe we can enter the lists with a Part III for 1977.

[Reprinted from Libertarian Forum 7, no. 4 (1975).]