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The Deer Hunter: Best Picture, 1978

thedeerhunterposter.jpgThe 51st Annual Academy Awards were hosted by Johnny Carson. The Deer Hunterwas nominated for 9 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Robert De Niro), Best Actress (Meryl Streep), Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), Best Editing, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound. It shared 6 nominations with Coming Home, another Vietnam War movie, which took Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor (for Jon Voight). Maggie Smith walked off with Best Actress for her performance in California Suite, a screwball comedy with an illustrious ensemble cast. Best Cinematography went to Days of Heaven, a gripping human drama starring Richard Gere. The Deer Hunter scooped up the remaining five, including (of course), Best Picture.

For the record, I’ve never heard of any of the other movies, and I’m willing to bet you haven’t either. 1978 was not an illustrious year for film. Of all the other movies that received nominations that year, I have seen three: Death on the Nile, Superman and Grease.

Christopher Walken’s award for the role of Nick remains his only Oscar win to date. John Cazale appears in this, his final film, as Stan. You may know Cazale as Fredo from the Godfather movies. He was dying of cancer during the filming of The Deer Hunter, and all of his scenes were shot first. Cazale appeared in five films before his untimely death. All were nominated for Best Picture. Three won.

Michael Cimino, the director, got bucketloads of acclaim from all sides for The Deer Hunter, but chances are you haven’t heard of him, either. Two years later, he released a nearly 4-hour epic calledHeaven’s Gate. Cimino had complete control, production ran way over schedule, and the budget skyrocketed to an outrageous (at the time) $40 million. The original cut of the movie was some five-and-a-half hours long. When it was released, it bombed spectacularly, earning back around 10% of its budget. Critics hated it. Audiences hated it. The studio, United Artists, already on the brink, folded and was bought out by MGM. And that’s why Michael Cimino doesn’t get to make many movies anymore.

The Deer Hunteris a delibaretly-paced story of three buddies from a small Pennsylvania town and how Vietnam changes their lives. Michael (De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) all work together in a steel mill, and the movie spends its first hour on our their last few days at home. They finish their shift, spend the day drinking and shooting pool, and then they go to Steven’s wedding that evening. After partying hard most of the night, they go deer hunting the next morning.

Throughout all of this, we slowly develop a picture of who these men are. Michael is wild, tough and masculine. His religion is hunting deer, and killing his prey with a single shot is his creed. He can’t wait to get to Vietnam and wade into the thick of things. Nick still has reservations about going, but he’s coasting on Michael’s confidence. He is addicted to gambling, and in the midst of the activity swirling around them he has asked their friend Linda (Meryl Streep) to await his return. She has agreed.

Steven gets somewhat less attention than the other two. He is marrying Angela (Rutanya Alda), but we know very little more about him. He seems passive, as though things happen to him, carrying him along through life, and he allows them to take him wherever they will. There are others who will not be going to war: Axel (Chuck Aspegren), a rather brutish but personable fellow, Stan (John Cazale), a weasely, combative little guy, and John, a bartender with a rich sense of humor.

The deer hunt segues straight into a scene of violence and confusion in Vietnam, where the three friends are captured and forced to play a game of Russian roulette against each other. It is a long and chilling sequence, followed by a tense escape (orchestrated by Michael) back to friendly territory (with a severely wounded Steven in tow). Back in Saigon, Michael and Nick both end up watching a game of Russian roulette in a smoky back alley, but they do not leave together. The final hour of the film is concerned with Michael and Steven and their struggle to fit back in at home, and then with Michael’s return to Saigon to rescue Nick from a nightmarish hell of high-stakes Russian roulette.

The Deer Hunter is not particularly easy or fun to watch (nor was it meant to be). It is extremely long and very draggy in places. Whether it could have been trimmed down further without sacrificing its effect I am not sure. Certainly we understand these characters very well before they ever leave for war, but at the same time I do not necessarily follow their choices; particularly Nick and his decision to remain in Saigon. Perhaps if there had been a tighter focus on Michael’s development as the deer hunter of the title, which is certainly the most interesting and redemptive storyline.

In any case, this is either a masterpiece or a very hollow facsimile of one. There are some very well-developed themes and motifs to be traced from beginning to end. The story follows a very simple and logical three act structure, ending where it began so that we can contrast the two and see what difference the middle portion has made. The Russian roulette game (highly controversial because no such events were ever actually documented during the Vietnam War) struck me as a fantastic symbol of the random and pointless violence of war, and nothing more. The movie ends with the least sentimental display of emotional patriotism I think I have ever seen.

As I mentioned above, 1978 was not an auspicious year, and my (admittedly very limited) experience of what it had to offer indicate that The Deer Hunter deserved its win as much as any. It just left me feeling more than a little drained and cold.

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~ by Jared on May 28, 2007.

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