For some critics, it made a wrong choice in opting to pander to the emerging fanboy constituency, as they believe the emphasis on event movies set in space or featuring comic-book heroes brought about the infantilisation of cinema. Others, however, think that the studios found a way to reconnect with audiences by offering them the kind of dramatic and visual thrills that no other medium could provide. The battle for the soul of cinema had begun and 1979 was to prove a crucial year in dictating the course that the world's film capital was about to take.
Retro-Almanac of 1979
A handful of films dominated the major awards, with Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Volker Schlöndorff's The Tin Drum taking the Palme d'Or at Cannes. There has yet to be a shared Palme this century, but there has never been a tie for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The big winner from 1979 was Robert Benton's Kramer vs Kramer, which won Best Director, Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman) and Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep), as well as the top prize. Sally Field landed Best Actress for her powerhouse turn as a millworker who becomes a union activist in Martin Ritt's Norma Rae, while Melvyn Douglas took Best Supporting Actor for Hal Ashby's Being There. He tied with Robert Duvall (Apocalypse Now) for the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, while his co-star, Peter Sellers, won the prize for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical. The Best Actress gong in this category went to Bette Midler for her full-on portrayal of a rock star on the skids in Mark Rydell's The Rose, while Hoffman, Streep and Field duplicated their Oscar wins.
As always, the year saw the passing of some of cinema's most familiar faces, with silent star Mary Pickford (who had been known as 'America's Sweetheart') and John Wayne (who bestrode Hollywood as 'The Duke') among the biggest names to depart. France lost one of its most influential directors when Jean Renoir died on 12 February, while another major influence on the nouvelle vague, Nicholas Ray, slipped away on 16 June. Cinema Paradiso allows you to follow the careers of such titans by entering their names on the search line and choosing the titles you wish to see, whether it's Wayne's Oscar-winning turn in Henry Hathaway's True Grit (1969), Renoir's pacifist masterpieces La Grande illusion (1937) and La Règle du jeu (1939), or Ray's teen classic, Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
Cinema also bade farewell to two of its greatest composers, Dimitri Tiomkin, who worked regularly with Frank Capra and received 22 Oscar nominations, and Nino Rota, who was Federico Fellini's favourite collaborator and who was denied an Oscar nomination for his iconic theme for Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972) because he had recycled a motif previously used on Eduardo De Filippo's Fortunella (1958).
Smiles and Songs
American screen comedy was at a turning point in 1979. Having won the Oscars for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen reunited with co-scenarist Marshall Brickman for Manhattan. But, while Gordon Willis's monochrome photography was highly praised and Allen took the BAFTA for Best Film, the critical response was more reverential than ecstatic, even though some felt this was the more mature film. Getting lightning to strike twice also proved a problem for Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal, who couldn't quite recreate the chemistry in Howard Zieff's The Main Event that had been so evident in Peter Bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc? (1972). A similar problem beset Ron Howard, Candy Clark and the rest of the gang assembled by George Lucas for American Graffiti (1973) when writer-director Bill L. Norton only fitfully hit paydirt in mining the rich seam of mid-60s nostalgia in More American Graffiti.
Elsewhere, magazine writer Burt Reynolds is consoled by nursery teacher Jill Clayburgh when tone-deaf wife Candice Bergen leaves him to pursue a singing career in Alan J. Pakula's offbeat romcom, Starting Over, while Andrew Bergman provides Peter Falk and Alan Alda with an uproarious odd couple script in Arthur Hiller's The In-Laws. But, even though this would be remade by Andrew Fleming for Albert Brooks and Michael Douglas in 2003, the classical farce was rapidly being replaced by a rougher, readier brand of comedy that had been honed during the first four years of Saturday Night Live (1975-). Although director Carl Reiner had been a key player in shaping American television comedy with Sid Caesar. Mel Brooks and Dick Van Dyke, he was sufficiently sensitive to the wind of change to guide SNL alumnus Steve Martin through his debut performance as eccentric inventor Navin Johnson in The Jerk. Canadian director Ivan Reitman also had his finger on the pulse and gave another SNL old boy, Bill Murray, the latitude to create improvised mayhem in the summer camp romp, Meatballs.
Anarchy also reigned in Alan Arkush's Rock 'n' Roll High School, which was co-written by upcoming director Joe Dante and executive produced by Roger Corman, who cast punk icons The Ramones in a raucous teenpic that invoked the spirit of pictures like Rock All Night (1957) from Corman's own exploitation heyday. Any shock value the film had has long diminished, but both Jeff Margolis's Richard Pryor: Live in Concert and Russell Mulcahy's Derek and Clive Get the Horn can still cause sharp intakes of breath. The latter featured Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in a very different kind of comedy to Blake Edwards's 10, which had made Cuddly Dudley an unlikely sex symbol. At the height of his post-Goon popularity, Peter Sellers had also hankered after becoming a romantic lead. But he remained at his best in projects that enabled him to create characters and 1979 saw him follow an Oscar-nominated turn in Being There with a patchier display as Rudolfs the Fourth and Fifth and Hansom cab driver Sid Frewin in Richard Quine's knockabout take on Anthony Hope's much-filmed adventure novel, The Prisoner of Zenda.
One of the great Oscar injustices saw 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life' overlooked for Best Song, as Hollywood fought shy of offending its Christian audience by showing favour to Terry Jones's scandal-mired comedy, Monty Python's Life of Brian. It took 12 years for the song to reach No.3 in the UK charts, which beat Eric Idle's previous best with the Neil Innes-penned 'I Must Be in Love' from The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978), which spent a single week at No.39. Frank Zappa posthumously peaked at No.83 with 'Cheap Thrills' after failing to break the Top 40 in this country with a single or an album during his lifetime. Nevertheless, he made some wonderfully wacky films, with Baby Snakes following on from Tony Palmer's 200 Motels (1971) in combining concert footage with vox pops, backstage antics and stop-motion animation from Bruce Bickford.
Profiled in Jeff Stein's documentary, The Kids Are Alright, The Who were no strangers to hit singles, although their musical legacy rests on the concept albums composed by Pete Townshend. Following Ken Russell's take on Tommy (1975), Franc Roddam stepped into the breach for Quadrophenia, an account of a Mods vs Rockers shakedown that featured The Police's frontman Sting in his first acting role, as well as a young Ray Winstone, who had something of a banner year, as he also headlined Alan Clarke's bruising borstal drama, Scum, which would make for a sobering double-header with John MacKenzie's A Sense of Freedom which stars David Hayman in a no-nonsense account of Gorbals gangster Jimmy Boyle's life of crime and incarceration in 1960s Glasgow.
At the opposite end of the musical spectrum, Joseph Losey produced a magnificent version of Mozart's opera, Don Giovanni, while Miloš Forman (who would triumph at the Oscars with the 1984 biopic, Amadeus) went all rock opera with his interpretation of Gerome Ragni and James Rado's counterculture hit, Hair. We began the musicals section with an Oscar snub and end it with a deserved double nomination, as Paul Williams and Kenny Archer were cited for Best Song Score and Best Song ('The Rainbow Connection') for James Frawley's timelessly gleeful escapade, The Muppet Movie.
A Rattlebag of Drama and Thrills
In a year that saw heritage cinema receive a welcome shot in the arm through Merchant-Ivory's adaptation of Henry James's The Europeans and Roman Polanski capture the pastoral passion of Thomas Hardy's Wessex in Tess, Derek Jarman masterminded a punkish version of William Shakespeare's The Tempest that suggested it was possible to be visually innovative while remaining true to the text. Abetted by the BAFTA-winning Judy Davis, Gillian Armstrong (one of the few women film-makers in our overview) similarly did her bit to boost New Australian Cinema with her vibrant version of Miles Franklin's semi-autobiographical turn-of-the-century tome, My Brilliant Career.
Known to millions as John-Boy in The Waltons (1971-81), Richard Thomas found himself fighting in the trenches with the Imperial German Army in Delbert Mann's careful tele-adaptation of Erich Maria Remarques' All Quiet on the Western Front, which didn't quite make the same impact as Lewis Milestone's 1930 version, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Rising stars Harrison Ford and Richard Gere also donned uniform to play Second World War GIs respectively romancing Lesley-Anne Down and Lisa Eichhorn in Peter Hyams's Hanover Street and John Schlesinger's Yanks.
Ancient Rome provides the setting for one of the year's most talked-about movies, as Penthouse boss Bob Guccione persuaded stars of the calibre of Malcolm McDowell, Peter O'Toole, John Gielgud and Helen Mirren to participate in Caligula, a softcore reimagining of the misdeeds of the famously lascivious emperor that was scripted by Gore Vidal and directed by Tinto Brass. One of Guccione's starlets, Joni Flynn, teamed with Glory Annen for another of 1979's raunchier offerings, John D. Lamond's Felicity, which made Gerry O'Hara's The Bitch seem very tame, even though it featured Joan Collins in an adaptation of one of sister Jackie's bawdy bestsellers.
Coming towards the end of her career, Audrey Hepburn found herself slumming alongside James Mason and Ben Gazzara in Terence Young's glossily hollow take on Sidney Sheldon's Bloodline. Two years after she had caused a publishing sensation with The Thorn Birds (which was brought to television by Daryl Duke in 1983), Colleen McCullough was adapted for the screen for the first time in Michael Pate's Tim, which centres on the reaction of Piper Laurie's neighbours to her age-gap friendship with man-child Mel Gibson.
This sensitively handled drama would make for a fine double bill with Ira Wohl's Oscar-winning documentary, Best Boy, which centres on the director's relationship with Philly, a cousin with learning difficulties who lives in the Queens district of New York with his ageing parents, Max and Pearl. Equally uplifting are Carroll Ballard's equine charmer, The Black Stallion, and Peter Yates's cycling rite of passage, Breaking Away, which sees four friends from Bloomington, Indiana - Dennis Christopher, Daniel Stern, Jackie Earle Haley and Dennis Quaid - compete in the Little 500 bike race.
There's a much darker take on small-town American life in John Huston's Wise Blood, a bleakly satirical reworking of Flannery O'Connor's postwar novel that boasts a career-best performance by Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes, the founder of the Church of Truth Without Christ. But Huston proves he could be just as effective in front of the camera as he was behind it, as the domineering paterfamilias in William Richett's stylish adaptation of Richard Condon's novel, Winter Kills, which co-stars Jeff Bridges as the half-brother of an assassinated US president who stands to inherit a fortune if he can only stay alive. Intriguingly, Huston was all set to direct Charles Bronson and Rod Steiger as a cop from Phoenix, Arizona trailing a drug-peddling crime boss before ill health forced him to pass Love and Bullets on to Stuart Rosenberg.
George C. Scott plays another tough-loving father in Paul Schrader's Hardcore, as he poses as a porn producer to find the daughter who went missing from a church outing. Roy Scheider also faces a race against time in Jonathan Demme's Last Embrace, as an ex-government agent who turns to graduate student Janet Margolin for help after his wife is murdered and former boss Christopher Walken claims to have other priorities. Babysitter Carol Kane also needs to summon assistance in Fred Walton's When a Stranger Calls. But, while cop Charles Durning came to check on the phone pest menacing Kane seven years earlier, who is going to save her now the whispering psychotic has returned?
A young girl is savagely raped in Norman Jewison's ...And Justice For All. But, such is the corrupt nature of the US legal system that idealistic lawyer Al Pacino is pressurised into defending top judge John Forsythe, even though he knows he's guilty. The debuting Matt Dillon also impresses, as he leads a juvenile rebellion after a Denver cop guns down a kid in a seemingly lawless planned community in Jonathan Kaplan's Over the Edge. LAPD officers John Savage and Ted Danson are the ones in danger when they pull over delinquents James Woods and Franklyn Seales for a minor motoring offence in Harold Becker's The Onion Field, which Joseph Wambaugh adapted from his own book about a notorious kidnapping incident in 1963 Hollywood. Further along the Californian coast, the infamous prison in San Francisco Bay provides the setting for another true story, as Clint Eastwood teams with director Don Siegel for the fifth time as bank robber Frank Morris in Escape From Alcatraz. However, Bob Clark takes numerous liberties with the facts as he sets Christopher Plummer's Sherlock Holmes and James Mason's Dr Watson to solve the Jack the Ripper killings in Murder By Decree.
Spills and Chills
The 1970s had been one of the most traumatic decades in recent American history, as defeat in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal had shaken the country's self-confidence. Indeed, some commentators have suggested that Hollywood focused on escapist actioners set in outer space to avoid having to confront the realities of the national crisis and it's noticeable that the only film to tackle Vietnam was Australian Tom Jeffrey's The Odd Angry Shot.
The traditional forms of macho cinema were certainly beginning to creak, with Western-themed offerings like Richard Lester's Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, Anthony Harvey's Eagle's Wing and Sydney Pollack's The Electric Horseman failing to fire the imagination, along with such African adventures as Douglas Hickox's Zulu Dawn and Richard Fleischer's Ashanti, which Michael Caine ranked as his third-worst movie. Fellow Brit Roger Moore also began to show his age in George P. Cosmatos's war saga, Escape to Athena, and Andrew V. McLaglen's oil rig thriller, North Sea Hijack. Yet, the moment he assumed the mantle of James Bond, Moore was back to his suave best in Lewis Gilbert's Moonraker, which saw the 007 franchise attempt to cash in on the vogue for all things interstellar.
Brandishing a different licence to kill, predecessor Sean Connery found himself in 1950s Havana, as a British mercenary discovering the truth about the tyrannical Batista regime in Richard Lester's Cuba, which was made to mark the 20th anniversary of Fidel Castro's revolution. Three years on from the US Bicentennial and the most unexpected Best Picture wins of the decade, Sylvester Stallone returned to the role of Rocky Balboa and also took over the directing duties on Rocky II, while Michael Douglas also got into the sporting spirit as a marathon athlete having to conquer his demons to compete in the Olympics in Steven Hilliard Stern's Running. Slowly emerging from father Kirk's shadow, Douglas also impressed alongside Jack Lemmon and Jane Fonda in James Bridges's The China Syndrome, a warning about the dangers of nuclear power that was released in the wake of the partial reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island in March 1979.
A sense of lawlessness links three pictures concerning gangs past, present and future, as Philip Kaufman harks back to 1963 New York in The Wanderers, Walter Hill examines contemporary counterculture in The Warriors and George Miller introduces us to Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), the cop out to confound the bikers terrorising a near-future Outback in Mad Max.
For the most part, sci-fi in 1979 saw the studios scramble around in the hope of finding their own equivalent to Star Wars and Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (both 1977). By far the most successful was Ridley Scott's Alien, which tapped into the prevailing American mood of Cold War paranoia. However, Ronald Neame's Meteor, Gary Nelson's The Black Hole and Robert Wise's Star Trek: The Motion Picture all had their adherents. The British duo of Jane Arden and Jack Bond audaciously mix cinema and video techniques to dazzling effect in Anti-Clock, a dissertation on time and identity that draws on Arden's book, You Don't Know What You Want, Do You? But the kookiest sci-fi picture of the year was unquestionably Guido Paradisi's The Visitor, which starred Paige Conner as a girl with extraterrestrial powers and boasted cameo turns from ace directors John Huston and Sam Peckinpah.
This cult hybrid was certainly more innovative than such conventional horrors as Radley Metzger's The Cat and the Canary and John Badham's Dracula, which teamed Frank Langella and Laurence Olivier as the Count and Professor Van Helsing, only for it to be overshadowed by Stan Dragoti's vampire spoof, Love At First Bite. More things went bump in the night in Stuart Rosenberg's The Amityville Horror and David Schmoeller's Tourist Trap, which is set in a creepy wax museum. But a hint of the new direction that the genre was about to take was provided by David Cronenberg's masterly body horror classic, The Brood, and Lucio Fulci's video nasty, Zombi 2, aka Zombie Flesh Eaters.
A Bit of Globetrotting
The most stylish horror film of 1979 was made in West Germany, as Nosferatu the Vampyre saw director Werner Herzog and star Klaus Kinski revisit the Expressionist spirit that FW Murnau and Max Schreck had summoned in the silent gem, Nosferatu (1922). Like Schlöndorff's The Tin Drum, this film was produced under the banner of Das Neue Kino, the new wave that had also fostered such talents as the prolific Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who not only released the controversial terrorist satire, The Third Generation, but also started work on his epic 902-minute tele-adaptation of Alfred Döblin's Weimar novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980).
François Truffaut had installed himself in the vanguard of the nouvelle vague with The 400 Blows (1959) and, two decades on, he concluded the misadventures of his alter ego, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), in Love on the Run. This wasn't a vintage time for French cinema, however, with only Bertrand Blier's Buffet Froid and Patrice Leconte's Les Bronzés (1978) making it on to the Cinema Paradiso roster. Masterpieces were produced elsewhere on the continent, however, with the pick being Francesco Rosi's epic adaptation of Carlo Levi's tale of exile in 1930s Italy, Christ Stopped at Eboli. Further east, the shadow of totalitarianism also hangs over Krzysztof Kieslowski's treatise on the perils of film-making, Camera Buff, and Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, in which a writer and an academic hire a guide to take them across a forbidden zone where it's possible to escape from the miseries of a futuristic world ravaged by warfare and poverty.
Japanimator extraordinaire Hayao Miyazaki embarks upon a lighter flight of fancy as a thief joins forces with a princess to seek out some hidden treasure in The Castle of Cagliostro. However, the tone darkens considerably as con man Ken Ogata embarks upon a brutal killing spree in Shohei Imamura's deeply disconcerting psychological study, Vengeance Is Mine, which took five years to make. By contrast, Hong Kong superstar Sammo Hung is framed for murder when he plays iconic martial artist Lam Sai-wing in Yuen Woo-ping's The Magnificent Butcher, a period actioner that also sees Kwan Tak-Hing return for over the 70th time to the role of folk hero Wong Fei-hung.
An even more stellar double act headlines Yash Chopra's Kaala Patthar, as Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor tackle the consequences of a mining disaster in a drama based on the tragedy at the Chasmala Mines in Bihar. Chopra also produced one the year's other big Bollywood hits, Manmohan Krishna's Noorie, in which the scheming Bharat Kapoor attempts to do away with Iftekhar after he refuses to sanction his marriage to daughter Poonam Dhillon, who is already engaged to a hard-working villager, Farooq Shaikh.