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Old May 19th, 2012, 03:30 AM
Brainbin Brainbin is offline
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Another Night at the Movies

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The logo of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, used since 1957.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, otherwise known as MGM, had been the largest and most profitable studio in Hollywood during the Golden Age. However, it had been in constant decline since the late 1950s, and its last great triumphs of that era: the musical Gigi in 1958, and the swords-and-sandals epic Ben-Hur (a remake of a famous silent film) in 1959; both films would win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, their only two such wins since the end of the Golden Age. [1] Ben-Hur had saved the studio from financial ruin, but it also put them in a precarious position: they were forever reliant on “the next big hit” to keep them going for another year or two. And needless to say, there were no guarantees.
In 1966-67, a controlling interest in the company was sold to Edgar M. Bronfman, scion of the Canadian Jewish Bronfman family, which controlled the Montreal-based Seagram distillers. He gradually consolidated his power in MGM, ascending to the Chairmanship in 1969. Times were tough for MGM, but the studio persevered partly on their legacy, and partly because many of the other studios were also having difficulty facing changes in the industry. Paramount, for example, despite having also been bought out by an entrepreneur (industrialist Charles Bluhdorn), was having considerable trouble establishing a presence on television, after a deal with another studio had fallen through. These woes did much to make MGM (which, by contrast, was buoyed by its well-performing television division) look more attractive to shareholders. [2]

Bronfman was mindful that the studio needed to diversify its output, but he also wanted to honour his existing obligations. Stanley Kubrick, who had directed 2001: A Space Odyssey for MGM, had approached the studio in hopes of financing his dream project: a biopic of Napoleon. His initial $5 million price tag was met with considerable distress, so he developed a plan to cut costs in almost every aspect of production that met with Bronfman’s approval. In September, 1969, he turned in a draft screenplay, and the project was officially green-lit. [3] Napoleon was filmed primarily on location, in Italy and Yugoslavia (with sojourns to France, and all on-set shooting done in Kubrick’s base of operations in England). Kubrick employed his considerable skill as a filmmaker to conceal a number of those key cost-cutting measures employed throughout the production, including the use of paper uniforms worn (while being filmed at great distances) by the French and Coalition soldiers, who were in turn portrayed by the People’s Yugoslav Army. 15,000 infantrymen and 5,000 cavalrymen were used in total, though not all at once 15,000 men total were used in the Waterloo sequence. Stylistic advances in cinematography, as well as visual effects techniques, were used to the fullest to create a palpable sense of atmosphere; particular praise was singled out for the use of natural lighting [4], made possible by newly-developed fast lenses, and for the stately, precise battle choreography, reflective of a more “civilized” age and divorced from the chaotic frenzy of modern war films. Starring as le petit corporal was the relatively unknown actor David Hemmings, whose intense and unforgettable performance was wisely presaged by Kubrick, who cast him despite his being below the lower end of his preferred age range (Hemmings was 29 during principal photography, whereas Napoleon had been 30 when was created First Consul of the French Republic in 1799). A far more impressive casting coup was Audrey Hepburn, who had been lured out of semi-retirement to star as Josephine; she received top billing, generously insisting that it also be extended to Hemmings, in an echo of the same courtesy bestowed upon her by Gregory Peck for Roman Holiday. Patrick Magee as Talleyrand, and frequent Kubrick collaborator Peter Sellers, in one of his few major dramatic roles as Fouché, rounded out the major players.

The film, which was released in late 1971, eventually cost well over the originally budgeted $5 million, which was still only a moderate price-tag for an epic film of the era. It received ten Academy Award nominations, more than any other film at the ceremony held the following April: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay (though Kubrick had written the film’s screenplay independently, it was credited as having been “adapted” from the biography written by Felix Markham – who had also served as technical advisor – for legal reasons), Best Actor (for Hemmings), Best Actress (for Hepburn), Best Supporting Actor (for Sellers), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, and Best Visual Effects. It also won multiple technical awards for pioneering multiple innovative filmmaking techniques. Most importantly, Napoleon was the highest-grossing film of the year, earning over $100 million stateside, and a great deal worldwide as well, particularly in Europe. It became the most successful foreign-language film in the history of both France and Italy, and (unsurprisingly) sold the most tickets per capita in Yugoslavia, where roughly half of the film was ultimately shot. (To be fair, Napoleonic France did indeed occupy part of modern-day Yugoslavia, known as the “Illyrian Provinces” of the French Empire).

At the Academy Awards of 1971, perhaps through a combination of the increasing vindication of Kubrick’s reputation (his previous picture, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was already undergoing substantial critical re-appraisal by this time), Napoleon swept most of the major awards. It won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Hemmings (who in accepting the award, became its youngest-ever recipient, at 30 years, 144 days old – beating the previous record-holder, Marlon Brando), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Costume Design. Best Actress was awarded to Jane Fonda for Klute, Best Supporting Actor went to Ben Johnson in The Last Picture Show, and Best Visual Effects went to the live-action/animated fusion film, Bedknobs and Broomsticks. [5] Kubrick was the sole recipient of three Academy Awards (Picture, Director, and Screenplay), but did not attend the ceremony due to his fear of flying. Other members of the Napoleon production team accepted on his behalf. Myriad jokes about Kubrick being “exiled to Elba” abounded. Co-host Jack Lemmon would build on the joke by remarking: “Well, we thought he was at Elba, but it turns out he escaped, only now he’s stuck at St. Helena”; another co-host, Sammy Davis, Jr., capped off the routine. “Kubrick’s next picture is going to be a sequel to The Ten Commandments, and right now he’s doing his research by trying to get through the desert to the Promised Land… on foot.” However, the award was a vindication for MGM, who had both popular and critical clout for the first time in some years (their previous big-budget film, Ryan’s Daughter, did well at the box-office but received thoroughly mixed reception). [6]

After two historical war epics and character studies in a row won Best Picture, audiences and critics were in the mood for something lighter and frothier. Befitting the more sophisticated era, the old-style ray-of-sunshine extravaganzas would not be appropriate, but at the very least, some cautious optimism was deemed necessary. Thus, it was Cabaret, the fourth-highest grossing film of 1972, and the second-highest grossing musical behind What’s Up, Doc, that took home Best Picture that year, one of nine total won by the film [7], which also included: Best Director; Best Actress for Liza Minnelli, Judy Garlands eldest daughter, in what effectively served as her Hollywood debut; Best Supporting Actor for Joel Grey (aided by a three-way split in the vote by nominees from The Godfather); Best Score, Adaptation; Best Sound Mixing; Best Art Direction; Best Cinematography; and Best Film Editing. Its hottest competition was mob film The Godfather, which won for Adapted Screenplay, Original Score [8], and Best Actor: Marlon Brando thus became the fourth actor to win the award twice (after Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, and Gary Cooper). In his acceptance speech, he made the only overtly political statements at that year’s ceremony by addressing the plight of the American Indian; it spoke to his immense veneration by his fellows within the industry that his thoughts were allowed be aired uninterrupted and unchallenged. [9] However, as much as the Oscars celebrated cinematic high art, 1972 was the high-water mark of one of the lowest forms of the medium: Porno Chic. Two pornographic films were among the Top 10 highest-grossing films of the year, and a third, though not technically pornographic, was extremely sexually explicit (and animated to boot): a film adaptation of the Fritz the Cat comic by Robert Crumb. However, it certainly spoke to the artistic aspirations of filmmakers in the era that even these films were far more snobbish and sophisticated than the lowbrow material that had come before.

For all of the bright and sunny atmosphere of the early 1970s, once the Oil Crisis and the recession hit in 1973, a decidedly darker, more macabre mood emerged. It didn’t help that the predominant trend of the era, retro nostalgia, was evenly split between two very well-received films: The Sting, set during the Great Depression, and American Graffiti, set during the early 1960s. Both of these were nominated for Best Picture, which allowed The Exorcist, based on a novel written by William Peter Blatty, to come through the middle, winning Best Picture, and Best Director for Peter Bogdanovich, among four other awards; most prominently Best Supporting Actress for 14-year-old Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Hollywood stars Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, who had played Regan MacNeil, the young girl who was possessed by an (unseen) demon. [10] The horror film was dark and unflinching (it had become only the second X-rated film to win Best Picture [11]), though the priests were ultimately successful in their quest to drive the demon from Regan’s soul – at great personal cost. It was wildly successful with audiences, grossing over $200 million at the box-office. The Sting, the second-most successful film of 1973, won three Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay; but American Graffiti, the third-most successful, went home empty-handed, much to the disappointment of both George Lucas and his wife Marcia. The sole award for which she was nominated was Best Film Editing, which had gone to The Exorcist, a decision that displeased many at Desilu Post-Production. Donald R. Rode, who had been nominated alongside Lucas, was overheard complaining to his boss, Herb Solow, the following morning that the editing for the winning film had been merely pedestrian”. He and Marcia commiserated over their loss; meanwhile, George Lucas seemed to shrug it off, already busy planning his next project

By 1974, the darkness had set in, which, more than anything else, explains the brilliant resurrection of a previously dormant genre: film noir, where there are no more heroes. The movie that spearheaded this renaissance was Chinatown, the brainchild of Robert Towne, a revered script doctor whose stock had significantly risen following his work on The Godfather. Peter Bogdanovich, though he was highly ambivalent about being seen as a “hired gun” of the studios, was nevertheless brought on as director after completing The Exorcist; Jack Nicholson and Jane Fonda starred as the hard-boiled protagonist and the femme fatale, respectively. [12] Bogdanovich fought hard for allowing the picture to be filmed in black-and-white, allowing him to play with light and shadow in direct homage to noir films of the past, particularly those directed by his idol, Orson Welles (who had made cameo appearances in both The Exorcist and Chinatown); visually, the film borrowed very heavily from Touch of Evil. The film won Best Picture, accepted by the notorious Robert Evans; Bogdanovich did not repeat as Best Director, with Francis Ford Coppola instead winning for The Godfather Part II. [13] The highest-grossing film of the year, Moonraker, won only one of the four Oscars for which it was nominated: Best Visual Effects, awarded to Derek Meddings. The next-highest grossing film of the year, the deconstructionist Western parody Blazing Saddles, surprisingly won for Best Supporting Actor, awarded to Harvey Korman; he, like Joel Grey two years before, won largely due to a three-way split among nominees from The Godfather (Part II). [14] Korman’s character within the film had explicitly mentioned the Oscar potential of his performance, in one of the many “meta” moments throughout the movie (and which organizers, not without a sense of irony, chose to feature in clips of his performance shown during the ceremony); fittingly, in his acceptance speech, Korman thanked the Academy for not holding my performance against me”, receiving one of the biggest laughs of the night. In contrast to 1973, Chinatown had only been the tenth-highest grossing film of the year, surprisingly low indeed for a Best Picture winner. But this was only one effect of the many changes affecting the increasingly decentralized American motion picture industry. Larger studios like MGM were finding their market shares face continuous declines; formerly niche markets were becoming increasingly legitimate. The old oligopolies that had been so dominant for so long were giving way to freer competition. The New Hollywood was no longer merely about the new, creative “freedom of the screen” now available to filmmakers; it was about the freedom of audiences to choose what movies to watch, with the studios becoming ever more powerless to stop them. Success in the entertainment industry had always been both elusive and fickle.


[1] And, IOTL, their last two films to win Best Picture to date. Their most recent nominee in the category was Moonstruck, from 1987.

[2] Who, when coupled with the better-performing overall economy, would not be motivated to sell a controlling interest to venture capitalist Kirk Kerkorian.

[3] One of the first major decisions made by the Kerkorian regime was to reject going forward with the Napoleon film, forcing Kubrick to go elsewhere in search of funding; the release of several other Napoleonic films, all of which performed poorly, were enough to scuttle his plans for good. It would remain his greatest lamentation.

[4] Kubrick had originally devised the use of natural light for Napoleon IOTL, before instead using it in Barry Lyndon.

[5] IOTL, The French Connection won for Picture, Director (William Friedkin), Actor (Gene Hackman), Adapted Screenplay, and Film Editing. Fiddler on the Roof won for Cinematography, and Nicholas and Alexandra won for Costume Design.

[6] Ryan
s Daughter earns about $50 million at the US box-office ITTL, up from only $30 million IOTL. This is a promotion from “financially devastating” to merely “disappointing”. In Europe, the film verges on a bona fide hit, particularly in the British Isles, enough to confirm Lean’s clout, rather than become viewed as a rare misstep.

[7] IOTL, Cabaret won all of those awards, except for Best Picture, which went to The Godfather. Cabaret was also the eighth-highest grossing film of 1972 IOTL.

[8] Nino Rota was disqualified from nomination because he had reused a theme from his previous film, in one of the more notorious technicalities of qualification requirements. IOTL, the award instead went to Limelight, a twenty-year-old Charlie Chaplin film, which only became eligible due to these same requirements (it only received a wide release in the United States in 1972 IOTL), in an obvious gesture to give one of the seminal figures in the film industry a competitive Oscar (which he had never won before).

[9] Yes, he accepted the award. Butterflies take care of the Wounded Knee incident (when in doubt, blame Tricky Dick!) and, by extension, Sacheen Littlefeather. However, Brando still affiliates with the American Indian Movement, who seek somewhat more peaceful methods of enacting social change.

[10] IOTL, William Friedkin directed the film. Bogdanovich will overall take a more minimalist, stylistic approach to the gore aspects of the film than Friedkin did, allowing the film to be disturbing in a more intellectual than visceral fashion, thus allowing it additional highbrow credibility, and therefore, more Oscar wins. The
“split in the vote” that did not occur IOTL (The Sting won for Picture and Director, among a handful of other awards) does occur here because of the better overall reception for American Graffiti. Starring as the possessed girl IOTL was Linda Blair, replaced by Jamie Lee Curtis, who obviously will not be remembered as the “Scream Queen” ITTL.

[11] The Exorcist received an “R” rating IOTL (undeservedly so, in the opinions of many), contributing to the decline of the “X” rating, which became seen as the province of pornography. Recall that ITTL, the “X” rating was registered by the MPAA in 1972, which cements its legitimacy.

[12] Nicholson recommended Roman Polanski as Director IOTL after Bogdanovich turned it down. Here, with him coming off The Exorcist, Evans has more leverage to appoint him immediately. For the same reason, Jane Fonda has a far less controversial reputation ITTL given the lack of her intimate involvement in the overseas quagmire, and seems a natural choice for the role of the alleged femme fatale.

[13] IOTL, The Godfather Part II became the first sequel to win for Best Picture, along with Coppola winning for Best Director.

[14] Korman, sadly, was not nominated for his role IOTL, thus depriving pop culture history of a supremely rich irony. ITTL, on the other hand, he defeats Robert De Niro.


Today marks the six-month anniversary of this timeline! And what a whirlwind it has been. Thank you all for reading, and thanks to my many commenters for your thoughtful replies and your generous comments. And special thanks to my collaborators, who have enriched this whole experience in ways I never could have imagined when I decided to actually post this somewhat nebulous and entirely quirky idea of mine on a lark, that fair November day.

ll continue to explore the movies – and even particular genres and individual films – in future posts. But coming up next time, a merry little jaunt across the pond!
The Turtledove Award-Winning That Wacky Redhead: Big Dreams Have Big Consequences!

Find out more on the Alternate History Wiki or TV Tropes
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