By Chris Nashawaty and Leah Greenblatt
November 21, 2018 at 05:15 PM EST
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As the slow-and-steady march to March 4, 2019, gets into full swing, it’s worth taking a look back at Oscars past to help make sense of Oscars present. The Academy Awards’ rich 90-year history of surprises and snubs, coronations and curiosities provides a lens through which we can see with 20/20 hindsight that the best picture doesn’t always win Best Picture — although on rare occasions they do get it right.

In our weekly column Oscar Flashback, EW’s film critics Chris Nashawaty and Leah Greenblatt will explore and debate the movies that won and the movies that should have won the coveted statuette — as well as the ones that weren’t even nominated, but in a just world would have been.

In this, our first installment, we’ll use the release of the eighth film in the Rocky saga, Creed II, as a springboard to re-litigate the 1976 Oscars in our personal and totally subjective Court of Appeals. It was a year as loaded with great movies as any in recent memory, where Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky entered the race as the little-movie-that-could and walked off with the top prize of the evening to the shock and dismay of many in the industry (less so, the millions of people watching at home).

CHRIS:  Let me start off by saying I adore the first Rocky. And, in theory, I have no problem with it winning Best Picture. In fact, it makes almost perfect sense coming as it did in America’s feel-good bicentennial year. Is it the greatest sports movie of all time? A case could be made for Raging Bull or even Bull Durham (although I don’t think many would go to bat for Chariots of Fire, which also won the 1981 Best picture Oscar).

Rocky is an endearing, rousing underdog story that most people wrongly remember as a triumph-of-the-the-little-guy epic. After all, Rocky lost in the end to Apollo Creed. It’s a pretty downbeat film in a lot of ways – a true ‘70s New Hollywood picture rather than a correction to them. But that gets overlooked due to its slew of formulaically triumphant sequels. Still, the public was on its side.

That said, take a look at the fellow nominees Rocky was up against for Best Picture: the paranoia-infused Woodward-and-Bernstein procedural All the President’s Men; Hal Ashby’s magic-hour Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory; the prescient, bruise-black media satire Network, and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver — as haunting a snapshot of a disturbed mind in a debased city as there’s ever been.

You have to scour the history books pretty hard to find a better class of contenders. Rocky’s win wasn’t an outrage, by any means. But on any given day, I might argue that it’s the fourth best film of the five (I never really went for Bound for Glory, and still feel that Carrie deserved its slot, but that’s neither here nor there). Rocky was precisely the movie America wanted (no, needed) in 1976, coming on the heels of Watergate and Nixon and Vietnam. I remember once asking Network director Sidney Lumet about that year’s Oscars and being snubbed. He still seemed stung by it. “It’s embarrassing that Rocky beat us out on Network,” he said, recalling something Network writer Paddy Chayefsky said to him on the way out to L.A. for the ceremony. “He said, ‘Rocky’s going to take Best Picture’, and said, no, no, no, it’s a dopey little movie. And he said, ‘It’s just the sort of sentimental crap they love out there. And he was right.’

What do you think, Leah? Was he right? Is Rocky sentimental crap that didn’t deserve Best Picture?

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LEAH: I think Best Picture winners are always so of their time, it’s almost impossible to separate the movie from the moment. (Which never stops me from screaming “NO NO NO YOU IDIOTS” at the television at least twice a ceremony, but that’s another story. Don’t I sound fun? Invite me to your next Oscars party!)

Speaking of screaming, though, it almost freaks me out how timely Network feels right now; almost every news alert on my iPhone turns me into Howard Beale, and I don’t blame Sidney Lumet for still being mad as hell about that loss; if I had to choose one true winner, that’s absolutely mine.

Taxi Driver would have been a worthy one too, of course, though I think several generations of insufferable dudes with Travis Bickle posters in their dorm rooms has maybe lulled us into thinking that movie had a wider demographic appeal at the time than it actually did.

And it’s easy sometimes (for me at least) to forget that the Academy is, above everything else, about pleasing people and patting itself on the back; if doing that also happens to sync up with rewarding capital-A Art, that’s a happy coincidence, but it will never be their endgame.

If it was, we wouldn’t have had Crash over Brokeback Mountain, or The Kings Speech over The Social Network (or Inception, or The Fighter, or Black Swan, or Winter’s Bone… literally, anything: Toy Story 3!)

I think it’s also hard to underestimate the power of the national mood that year, with all the factors that you mentioned. Though I wasn’t actually alive yet to witness it, America in 1976 did seem like a country that very much wanted to celebrate, and forget. And a monosyllabic boxer from the wrong side of Philadelphia was all of us. Why deal with so much existential angst and rage and political upheaval when we could just jog up those steps to the Liberty Bell?

CHRIS: Leah, you are welcome at my Oscar party any time! Although you may not want to come because I did, in fact, have a Taxi Driver poster up in my dorm room in college (I love being reduced to a stereotype, thanks).

Okay, so we can agree that maybe something darker and socially apocalyptic should have won in hindsight, but the country was in no mood for it. Trust me, I was alive in 1976, and the country seemed to be festooned in red-white-and-blue bunting. These were not a nation of Travis Bickles and Howard Beales (yet!). For a brief moment, we were all Uncle Sam and Rocky Balboa. So the Rocky pick makes sense. And I don’t have a beef with that at all, really. It’s still a hell of a movie.

So, let’s move past picture for a sec and into performances from ’76. I think we both can agree DeNiro was fantastic but that Peter Finch’s Howard Beale was a zeitgeist-capturing cinch (although if you get a chance, do a Google image search of Stallone from Oscar night. It’s a disco-era time capsule. His ruffled tuxedo shirt collars look like they came from JC Penney’s highly-flammable Studio 54 polyester line). Stallone may not have won Best Actor, but in terms of career pushes, he was a bigger winner than anyone that night, so I don’t feel too badly for him.

As much as I love Network, I find Faye Dunaway’s Best Actress winning performance to be a bit hysterical and broad looking back – a man’s idea of what an ambitious, hard-charging (read: castrating) female executive must have looked like to them in the age of women’s lib. And her costar, Beatrice Straight, won Supporting for what was essentially one great scene. Maybe you want to give the edge to Carrie’s Piper Laurie there?

I think the Academy absolutely got it right with Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee in All the President’s Men. But what about Rocky’s Burgess Meredith or Network’s Ned Beatty or even Marathon Man’s orthodontic Nazi sadist Laurence Olivier? Do you think Rocky’s Talia Shire or Carrie’s Sissy Spacek should have beat out Dunaway? In such a strong year, it’s nice to see that the love got spread around as much as it did.

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LEAH: Dirty pillows! You had me at Piper Laurie’s original Mommie Dearest, but now that you’re saying it absolutely yes, that statuette belonged to Sissy Spacek for her Carrie prom scene alone. Yo, Adrian, I love you — but in a Golden Globes kind of way, at the most. (And I agree with you on Dunaway, though I do think she gives a great, tough performance).

I think the acting in chess-like, text-heavy movies like All the President’s Men is intrinsically designed to be underplayed (if they’re done right, at least), which doesn’t really allow for the kind of glorious showboating that usually wins these things; clearly Robards’ Ben Bradlee is no Nazi orthodontist, giggling madly over misbegotten diamonds. If there were an award for sociopathic intensity and talking to mirrors, it’s DeNiro all the way; otherwise, I’m happy to stay with Peter Finch.

But let’s not judge too harshly, should we? After all, the Academy’s Song of the Year was Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen,” from a Star Is Born. And a world that lets “love soft as an easy chair/love fresh as the morning air” coexist with Jodie Foster’s teenage prostitute, a Best Score Oscar for The Omen, and a Best Screenplay for the late, great William Goldman, I’m okay with.

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