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Did 'Raging Bull' really deserve to beat 'Ordinary People' for best picture at the Oscars?

February 5, 2009 |  1:30 pm


Film critics these days love to flail their chests and bemoan the outcome of the Oscars derby of 1980, when "Ordinary People" beat "Raging Bull" for best picture. However, the widespread modern view that film critics universally adored Martin Scorsese's bloodfest back then is a bit of revisionist film history.

While the Los Angeles Film Critics Association gave its best picture and actor awards to "Raging Bull" and Robert De Niro, "Ordinary People," "Tess" and "The Stunt Man" were close in the running for that top prize and John Hurt ("The Elephant Man") for best actor.

When the New York Film Critics Circle voted, "Raging Bull" came in third place for best pic (12 points) behind winner "Ordinary People" (31) and "Melvin and Howard" (22). De Niro won best actor (33 points) but only narrowly knocking out "The Great Santini" star Robert Duvall (29) and "The Stunt Man" contender Peter O'Toole (24).

At the National Society of Film Critics, "Melvin and Howard" won best picture and "Raging Bull" had to take the consolation prizes of best director for Scorsese and supporting actor for Joe Pesci, who had also been honored by the New Yorkers. The society voted Peter O'Toole best actor.

At the Golden Globes and National Board of Review, "Ordinary People" won best picture and director (Robert Redford) and De Niro took best actor. In the supporting race, Pesci won NBR and "Ordinary People" star Timothy Hutton took the Globe.

At the Academy Awards, "Ordinary People" had six nominations and won best picture, director, supporting actor and adapted screenplay. "Raging Bull" had eight noms, winning only best actor and film editing. The other nominees for best picture were "Coal Miner's Daughter," "The Elephant Man" and "Tess."

A few notable film critics didn't like "Raging Bull." Where you observe elipses in the snippet below from Pauline Kael's review, you can fill in with "f" bombs.

PAULINE KAEL, THE NEW YORKER: "I know. I'm supposed to be responding to a powerful, ironic realism, but I just feel trapped. Jake says, 'You dumb ...' and Joe says, 'You dumb …,' and they repeat it and repeat it. And I think, 'What am I doing here watching these two dumb ….?' "

DAVID DENBY, NEW YORK: "A monumental, crabbed, limited work. The film has distanced us so much from the hero that by the time Sugar Ray wipes him out with a haymaker — an overhand wallop that nearly takes Jake's face off — we're not much moved; it's just gruesome spectacle. 'Raging Bull' winds up punishing the audience with its integrity."

Photos: "Raging Bull," Robert De Niro. "Ordinary People," Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Hutton.

Credits: Paramount, United Artists

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