Oscars flashback: What won unpredictable Best Picture race in 1981?

The close race between “Birdman” and “Boyhood” for this year’s Best Director and Best Picture reminds me of the 1981 Oscars, a very special year of unpredictability that I covered from backstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. 

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In those pre-Internet, pre-laptop days, we wrote our stories on something called “typewriters” and either faxed our stories on deadline to our newspapers or dictated them over phones that were provided to our credentialed ilk by the Academy. There were no copy and paste options on those machines, so the stories we were writing in progress had a lot of cross outs and inserts that made final transmissions very awkward.

Most of the time, the awards went to the predicted winners, so we could pretty much write the story ahead of time and add quotes from the winners who were trotted into the press room bearing beaming smiles and gold. But that is not how it went that March night in 1982. There was no clear favorite for any of the awards, and any trends we thought we spotted early quickly proved false.

And what ballots there were to be decided! The Best Picture nominees were “Atlantic City,” “Chariots of Fire,” “On Golden Pond,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and “Reds.” The directors of those films – Louis Malle, Hugh Hudson, Mark Rydell, Steven Spielberg and Warren Beatty — were also nominated.

The first award of the night, for supporting actress, was won by Maureen Stapleton for “Reds.” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” my favorite, then went on a run, winning five of the so-called craft awards, for editing, art direction, visual effects and sound and sound mixing. “Chariots of Fire” stole a couple of those from “Raiders,” one for its musical score and one for costume design. “Reds” picked up its second Oscar for cinematography.

When “Raiders” was announced as the winner for film editing, we in the press room began writing about a “Raiders” win. Forget the experts who said the Academy wouldn’t honor a matinee movie. It had six Oscars with two to go. The supporting actor award might have caused us pause if it had gone to either “Chariots’” Ian Holm or “Reds’” Jack Nicholson. Instead, it went to John Gielgud, as the fusty valet to Dudley Moore’s cuddly alcoholic in “Arthur.”

The directing award that year was announced before the writing and acting awards, so it was still early when Beatty was called to the stage where he thanked Paramount Pictures for financing a movie about American communists. The question on our minds backstage was whether Academy voters were about to declare a movie about communists the best of the year. I wrote a lead about a red letter night for “Reds” and wondered if it would hold up.

But then “Reds” lost the original screenplay award to “Chariots of Fire,” while “On Golden Pond” cashed in the first of its nine nominations, for its adapted screenplay, followed by wins for its elderly stars Katharine Hepburn and the gravely ill Henry Fonda. Hmmm. So, “On Golden Pond” might win this thing. Start writing that lead.

With the evening’s last envelope in the hands of presenter Loretta Young, those of us sweating a deadline backstage held our breaths hoping that the film for which we had composed a likely story would be there. Beatty had won for directing and the director’s movie almost always won. “On Golden Pond” had won three of the biggest awards and though “Raiders” had only craft awards so far, anything now seemed possible. And there was “Chariots,” whose lone major award was for its adapted screenplay.

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It’s going to be “Reds,” right? That is what I had written and what I hoped would only need another quote or two from Beatty in order to wrap it up and get it filed. But that’s not what Loretta Young said. The winner was “Chariots of Fire,” and there was relative pandemonium in the press room as sheets of paper were discarded and typewriters began clicking in earnest once more.

“Chariots’” win that night was what it would be like Sunday if “Whiplash” or “American Sniper” got the final shout-out over “Birdman” or “Boyhood.” That’s not going to happen. Not a chance. But what if it did?

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