This year's roster of Oscar nominations has been hailed for introducing a new flock of talent to the Academy's ranks. But Oscar 2005 still looks a lot like Oscar 1975. Steven Spielberg's Munich has earned multiple nominations (including best director). Robert Altman will be getting an honorary Oscar for his body of work. Woody Allen has received a nomination for writing Match Point.
In 1975, the Altman of M*A*S*H and McCabe and Mrs. Miller was the master gambler of American filmmaking. Spielberg, after The Sugarland Express, became its most spectacular prodigy. Both delivered benchmark masterpieces, Spielberg with Jaws, Altman with Nashville. (Scandalously, Spielberg didn't receive a best director nomination for Jaws, though the film won three Oscars and was up for best picture.) And Allen was just warming up for his Oscar favorite Annie Hall (1977) with his Russian-set comic romance Love and Death, co-starring his future Annie, Diane Keaton.
Comparing how these talents operated then and now is alternately heartening and deflating.
With Jaws, the late novelist Peter Benchley provided Spielberg with the perfect horror hook. The ideal demon for a director whose forte is movement was The Great White Shark: huge, speedy and agile, its forays unpredictable and its appetite for killing unmatched. Jaws remains unfailingly enjoyable because of Spielberg's almost prehensile touch with suspense, the games he plays with expectations on a crowded beach, and the comic hay he makes from the contrasts of his three heroes - the manly shark fighter (Robert Shaw), the young, counterculture scientist (Richard Dreyfuss) and the solid husband, father and police chief (Roy Scheider).
Spielberg's 2005 War of the Worlds was another thriller about killing machines, this time ferocious aliens, not sharks. But not even the dynamic and involving first half, which cannily depicts Tom Cruise as a jerky divorced dad, approaches the rich cross-generational comedy of Jaws. War of the Worlds is fascinating as an attempt to explore reactions to 9/11 within the context of an escapist thriller. But watching it, you fear Spielberg equates maturity with being grim and "serious." And Munich only compounds that fear.
One reason Altman has aged more gracefully than Spielberg (Altman will be 81 Monday) may be that he came into movies as a grown-up who realized that comedy and drama were inextricably intertwined. Nashville gave us Altman in full eruption. When you see and hear Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), country music's king, singing a song about America ("We must be doing something right to last two hundred years") the moment is so rich - so comic (Haven is a flyweight in a white cowboy suit) and so grave (he really believes in the song) - that despite yourself, you want to hum along.
In 2005, Altman was off making his forthcoming film version of Garrison Keillor's The Prairie Home Companion. But his influence in Hollywood was still huge. Before directing Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney actually sought out Altman for guidance in how to get ensemble films to click.
Woody Allen was nearing the peak of audience identification in 1975. A Jew in a land of Gentiles, a little guy in a big man's world and a heterosexual struggling out of the closet, he was then the funniest displaced person in America. He had so many loose connections that all he had to do to stir up comic sympathy was walk on screen. Love and Death, full of funny bits and pieces, wasn't the laugh riot that Bananas and Sleeper had been. In it, Allen played Boris, the coward all St. Petersburg is talking about during the Napoleonic Wars. Boris is obsessed with mortality and sex, and thus with his second cousin Sonia (Keaton), who blithely describes herself as "half-saint, half-whore." Allen still had the classic first half of Annie Hall just ahead of him (it was his next movie), but in 1975, he was already showing signs of self-importance. His clever satires of philosophical muddles became numbingly repetitious.
At least in Love and Death, Allen was burlesquing Russian novels. In Match Point, the antihero reads Crime and Punishment and the movie becomes a mix of Crime and Punishment and Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. When people say that Match Point is an atypical Allen film, all they mean is that it's set in London and he isn't in it. Match Point is actually typical of inflated Allen films from Interiors (1978) to Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Husbands and Wives (1992).
In 1975, Altman was the biggest renegade of the three. But in the movie landscape of 2005 and 2006, he's the sanest of the bunch. His example of keeping one foot in and one foot out of the major studios, and then leaving them altogether, has inspired generations of independent filmmakers.
More important, Altman has never lost his authentic, homegrown sense of human complexity - which contains wit as well as angst - and his appetite for the polyglot variety of American life.