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Z and the New York Film Critics Circle

Upon its U.S. release in the fall of 1969, Costa-Gavras’s Z made a splash unprecedented for a non-Hollywood film: star Yves Montand talked it up to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, and the film went on to gross $2.2 million during its first year. But Z also became a critical landmark. And it was the first foreign-language film to win the best film of the year award from the New York Film Critics Circle.

The coincidence of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Circle (of which I am chair) and Criterion’s new DVD release of Costa-Gavras’s best-known film offers a perfect opportunity to reflect on the organization’s awards history, especially as we get set to announce our 2009 winners. Considering how well Z holds up decades later helps affirm that, with all the fluctuations in critics’ choices, they sometimes get things right.

U.S. moviegoers, living in Hollywood’s shadow, commonly separate their enthusiasm for English-language, North American films from that for foreign-language imports. Critics are no exception—as proved by most of the NYFCC’s first four decades.

From 1935, when the Circle was founded, to 1968, all of its choices for best film were in English, and most were American-financed. This domestic focus was a dominant register in the U.S. critical mind-set then, and it persists even today. It’s a rarely commented-upon hegemony. The pattern changed only occasionally, when a British film would take the Critics Circle prize: In Which We Serve (1942), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Sons and Lovers (1960), Tom Jones (1963), A Man for All Seasons (1966), The Lion in Winter (1968).

Because the Circle’s membership comprised reviewers from all the major daily, weekly, and monthly publications based in New York City, it represented an established, empowered, traditional perspective on cinema. This was reflected in its award choices—usually middle-of-the-road, prestigious movies, often based on renowned literary or theatrical works. (John Ford’s version of Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer won the first NYFCC prize, in 1935. John Huston’s film of B. Traven’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre won in 1948. Elia Kazan’s adaptation of Tennesee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire won in 1951. West Side Story and My Fair Lady were winners in the early 1960s.) In those first decades, the Circle relegated non-American films to the optional best foreign-language film category—a prize awarded sporadically.

This parochial grip was loosened after World War II, during the revolution in international film distribution and exhibition and the cresting art-film innovations of the 1960s—a period sometimes described as the heroic age of moviegoing, when filmmakers from Sweden (Ingmar Bergman), Japan (Akira Kurosawa), and especially Italy (Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini) were commonly known to attentive American film watchers. Foreign-language imports became popular fare among those looking for mature material. Adults were enticed by the opportunities for scopophilia offered by the sophisticated European presentation of sex (Rashomon,  Summer with Monika, La dolce vita,  Jules and Jim), while college students pursued new political ideas and stylistic trends (Breathless,  8½,  L’avventura,  Yojimbo).

This was also the time when the idea of the auteur took root (imported from France’s Cahiers du cinéma by American critic Andrew Sarris). It caused an irreversible shift in critical attitude and discourse. By mid-decade, a renegade group of NYFCC members started a splinter organization, the National Society of Film Critics, whose early years were strictly devoted to recognizing foreign-language film artists (Antonioni, Bergman, Truffaut, Rohmer, Bertolucci, Buñuel). Their defection from the orthodox ranks was part of the era’s political tumult.

In 1968, the same year as the Cannes Film Festival riot and Columbia University students’ anti–Vietnam War protest, the NYFCC experienced further discord, this time a bitter struggle between the old guard and those who favored more adventurous choices. As Renata Adler recalls in A Year in the Dark, her now out-of-print collection of pieces written while heading the New York Times film desk, it was John Cassavetes’s radically individual Faces that set off the furor. Despite the rift, however, no members quit, and it was the more traditional The Lion in Winter that won out.

But by the next year, the Circle’s revolution was complete; Z proved so commanding that the majority of members were compelled to give it both the year’s best film and best director awards. This victory over second-place vote-getter Richard Attenborough’s British music hall extravaganza, Oh! What a Lovely War—a middlebrow contribution to the era’s antiwar sentiments—announced a significant change in American critical perception of foreign-language films.

As always, this critical shift had an echo in mainstream thinking: Z became the first foreign-language movie to be nominated for best picture by the Academy since Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion in 1938. Z proved to be such an influence on American concepts of film prestige and pleasure that it also managed to get around Oscar rules and get the nomination for best foreign-language film as well, a feat that then Circle member John Simon observed was “rather like running for office on both the Republican and Democratic tickets.”

Z’s account of Greece’s Lambrakis affair had a political effect, exposing the methods of fascist crackdowns through its investigation of a political assassination. But its impact is most clearly seen in the way it opened up critical perceptions of cinema’s value and cultural importance. After the Circle changed its rules in 1969, making foreign-language films eligible for the top prize, this newfound cosmopolitan enthusiasm prevailed for many years—contrary to the now-accepted critical wisdom that the 1970s constituted a renaissance for American filmmaking: the Circle awarded best film to Bergman’s Cries and Whispers in 1972, not The Godfather, Truffaut’s Day for Night in 1973, not Mean Streets or American Graffiti, Fellini’s Amarcord in 1974, not The Godfather: Part II.

“History repeats the old conceits,” Elvis Costello sang, and the New York Film Critics Circle has recently repeated its history, swinging back to its original method of prioritizing English-language favorites and reserving recognition of non-English films for the foreign-language category. The Circle and the culture await a phenomenon that can change critical practice as powerfully and definitively as Z did.

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