Looking over 1971, it’s composed almost entirely of good movies; Kotch and Summer of ’42 are the only real stinkers. It might have been expected that 1971 would betray all manner of incoherent doubt, rage, and frustration. But far from incoherence, movies instead grappled with difficult subjects with stunning narrative assurance. Number 1 movies are accessible by definition, but this group presented audiences with difficult subjects and flatly refused to take the easy way out.
Not even the most doggedly genre-bound of movies were exempt: Escape from the Planet of the Apes pondered the old Hitler time-travel dilemma, while Big Jake weighed the monetary value of a child’s life. Looking over my ratings, the year was studded with 7s and 8s, with four exceeding even that high benchmark. If I was unkind to Shaft and The Last Picture Show (I don’t think I was), then I may have been too forgiving to Escape from the Planet of the Apes and the Bond movie; it all evens out.
Klute and The Last Picture Show made a powerful and lasting impression on a large viewership that was clearly hungry for more complex fare from filmmakers, while Fiddler on the Roof may be the most powerful and mature movie musical of all time (although 1972 will feature a possible contender for that title, as we shall see). Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft seemed to demonstrate the existence of an enduring black audience; 20/20 hindsight, alas, reveals that it would be many years before that audience would receive its due attention from Hollywood on a consistent basis — we’re still not quite there yet.
After a full year off, hard-nosed crime reestablished its proper place in the ranks of the popular, with Get Carter and Dirty Harry and The French Connection and Shaft. When it comes to comedy, 1970 had M*A*S*H and little else; 1971 saw the emergence of perhaps the two most influential comedy geniuses of the postwar era: Woody Allen and Monty Python.
1970, by comparison, positively wallowed in the past: to its 10 period movies, 1971 offered only 4. (As in 1970, there was one movie set in the future.) If 1970 was New York-centric, 1971 divided its focus between the two coasts: New York hosted 4 movies, but Los Angeles and San Francisco provided the setting for 6. (Movies found time to visit Texas, Iowa, Las Vegas, Nantucket, San Marcos, Ukraine, and Newcastle too.)
1970 seemed riven by the young/old divide; 1971 seemed more successfully integrated, lionizing inclusion over exclusion — inclusion, after all, translates into cash. Movies weren’t free from agenda (Dirty Harry, Cold Turkey) or ethnic niche (Shaft, Fiddler), but overall they seemed to want to present an intelligent perspective to a varied audience.
Academy Awards: Three of our movies were nominated for Best Picture: The French Connection beat out The Last Picture Show, Fiddler on the Roof, and two other nominees, which worked out the same way for Best Director (Friedkin). Gene Hackman (French Connection) and Jane Fonda (Klute) won deserved Best Actor/Actress statuettes, with Topol’s Tevye offering the only plausible alternative as well as the only other actor from our group. The Last Picture Show gave us both winners for Actors in a Supporting Role, in Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman. Jeff Bridges (The Last Picture Show), Leonard Frey (Fiddler on the Roof), Roy Scheider (The French Connection), and Ellen Burstyn (The Last Picture Show) were the other Supporting nominees from the year’s #1s — I myself would have gone with Burstyn over Leachman. Summer of ’42‘s treacly score was recognized with an Oscar, and the ten combined Best Screenplay nominees included Summer of ’42, Klute, The Last Picture Show, and the winner for Best Original Screenplay, The French Connection.
The French Connection (9)
Fiddler on the Roof (9)
Get Carter (9)
Play Misty for Me (8)
Cold Turkey (8)
And Now For Something Completely Different (8)
The Last Picture Show (7)
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (7)
Dirty Harry (7)
Big Jake (7)
The Omega Man (7)
===== 6.5 =====
Diamonds Are Forever (6)
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (6)
Summer of ’42 (2)
Pleasant surprises: Cold Turkey, Play Misty for Me, Big Jake
Disappointments: Summer of ’42
Weighted IMDB average for weeks in which 1971 releases were #1 (45 weeks): 7.07
Weighted Boffo average for weeks in which 1971 releases were #1 (45 weeks): 6.91
Notable movies that did not reach #1: 200 Motels, The Anderson Tapes, The Andromeda Strain, Billy Jack, Brian’s Song, Carnal Knowledge, A Clockwork Orange, Death in Venice, Duel, Harold and Maude, The Hospital, Johnny Got His Gun, Little Murders, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Murmur of the Heart, The Panic in Needle Park, Straw Dogs, Sunday, Bloody Sunday, THX 1138, They Might Be Giants, Two-Lane Blacktop, W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, Walkabout, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Further reading: Pauline Kael, Deeper Into Movies; J. Hoberman, The Dream Life