Some of the best picture nominees for 1981 were very typical. Inspirational dramas and historical epics often get nominated for best picture. But action/adventure movies and dark comedies are rarely ever nominated. I truly wonder why that is. If a movie makes us laugh, does that mean it doesn’t teach us about life? If there is more action than dialogue in a movie, does that automatically mean that it can’t make people think? And what does a “good” movie consist of? Raiders of the Lost Ark has entertainment value beyond measure, but it’s not about a serious subject. Reds is about the Russian Revolution, which is very serious. And Reds is rather dull. So which movie is better? Since both have good production values, I’m going with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Yes, art should show us something about life or ourselves. It should make us think about good and evil or if the life we’re living measures up to what we want it to be, but a movie can do that and be fun at the same time. I feel like the Academy may not value fun enough. That’s a huge lesson I took from the 1981 nominees (and from the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy wasn’t nominated for this last year).
The advantage to 1939 having so many nominees is that I saw almost all of the Oscar-nominated performances; that made it easy to judge whether or not I agreed with the decisions. But in 1981, things were spread out a little bit more. While it would be awesome to watch every movie ever nominated for every Academy Award, I have a job and a semblance of a life and simply don’t have the time to do that. So while I can’t say that Katharine Hepburn’s performance in On Golden Pond was the best performance of the year, I can say it was the best of those that I saw. I know that many people think she and Henry Fonda won only because of sentiment. Here are two actors from the golden age of Hollywood playing elderly people! Look how sweet! But I honestly thought Katharine Hepburn deserved her award. Henry Fonda, on the other, was also good, but not as good as Burt Lancaster in Atlantic City. Burt Lancaster made me care about an old criminal; he made Lou believable as a lover and a fighter. It was a much more difficult role than that of Norman Thayer, Jr., cranky yet lovable retired college professor. And Burt Lancaster is a Hollywood legend, too. If the Academy felt the need to give the award to an older actor, it should have been him.
Even though I love Raiders of the Lost Ark, I still think that the best movies need to be entertaining and meaningful. Chariots of Fire managed to do both. It’s the story of two men standing up for their principles through the medium of athletics. That’s not a typical story, and it is so well-written with such alive characters that you have to keep watching to find out if they will triumph. Raiders of the Lost Ark is gripping, too, but that’s because the action is non-stop. Practically every scene ends with a cliffhanger. You keep watching to make sure that everyone lives. It’s easier to keep people’s attention that way. It’s harder to keep people interested in characters who aren’t doing anything but running. That’s why I have to give the edge to Chariots of Fire. I think Raiders of the Lost Ark is a classic that will endure because people enjoy it, and I’m glad. But while I think it might be harder to convince someone to watch Chariots of Fire, the person who does will be more richly rewarded.
How do I rank the nominees?
4. On Golden Pond
3. Atlantic City
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark
1. Chariots of Fire