Oscar Vault Monday – Sounder, 1972 (dir. Martin Ritt)
1972 is a hard year to discuss a film that was nominated but didn’t win Best Picture considering the winner that year was The Godfather. I decided to go with Martin Ritt’s Sounder because it is almost as opposite a film from The Godfather among the other nominees. Yet, in a way it’s very similar. Both films are about the lengths one will go for family. Sounder is a drama, but in the end it’s also one of the most uplifting films I’ve ever seen. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress Cicely Tyson, Best Actor Paul Winfield and Best Picture. The other films nominated that year were Cabaret, Deliverance, The Emigrants and winner The Godfather.
Apparently director Martin Ritt has directed thirteen different actors in Oscar-nominated performances: Melvyn Douglas (won), Paul Newman, Patricia Neal (won), Richard Burton, James Earl Jones, Jane Alexander, Paul Winfield, Cicely Tyson, Geraldine Page, Sally Field (won), Rip Torn, Alfre Woodard and James Garner. That’s a pretty great track record. Ritt, however, was only nominated for Best Director once – for 1963’s Hud. Lonne Elder became the first black screenwriter to be nominated for an Academy Award for his adapted screenplay. Also notable is the film’s soundtrack, which was composed by Blues great Taj Mahal.
Paul Winfield is amazing as Nathan Lee Morgan, a sharecropper in the depression-era south who winds up in jail after trying to help his starving family. Winfield became the third black actor and fourth performance by a black actor to be nominated for Best Actor for this film. This is a role that could really have been trumped-up with sentiment and in lesser hands could have become clichéd and dated. Luckily, this was not the case and the performance feels just as profound today as I’m sure it did nearly 40 years ago.
Cicely Tyson is really a force of nature as Nathan Lee’s wife Rebecca. She works hard and she doest he best she can to maintain her dignity and the dignity of her children while she finds herself in a nearly impossible situation. Tyson, along with Diana Ross who was nominated for Best Actress in 1972 for Lady Sings The Blues, became the second and third black actresses to be nominated for the award. With her nomination Sounder became the first film to have black leads both nominated for acting Oscars. Tyson was not only nominated at the Academy Awards, but was also nominated at the Golden Globes for Best Actress in a Drama, was named Best Actress by the National Board of Review, and the National Society of Film Critics and tied for Best Actress with Katharine Hepburn in The Trojan Women at the Kansas City Film Critics Circle.
Kevin Hooks plays son David Lee Morgan, whose relationship with his father and their hunting dog Sounder is one of the main plot points in the film. While Hooks is great when he’s one his own, he really shines in his scenes with Winfield. The rapport between the two is wonderful and is definitely one of the most real feeling father-son relationships I’ve seen.
*SLIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD*
The end of the film is such a beautifully uplifting ending. At one point earlier in the film David finds himself at a school run by a compassionate teacher (played by Carmen Mathews), who offers David free room and board if he would come to study at the school full-time. When David comes home his father returns as well. While his mother thinks it best David stay home and help out the family, Nathan is determined his son get an education. It is this finale scene that packs the greatest emotional wallop in the whole film and if it doesn’t have you crying, I’m not sure you have a heart.
If you’re interested in purchasing this film, you can do so here.