Timeline of Greatest Film
Milestones and Turning Points
in Film History


The Year 1981

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1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989

The Year 1981
Year
Event and Significance
1981
Katharine Hepburn won her record fourth (and final) acting Oscar (presented in 1982) - Best Actress for her performance in On Golden Pond (1981). She became the first performer to win a fourth Academy Award (and her 4th Best Actress Oscar) - to date, the most successful actress in the award's history.
1981
An ailing Henry Fonda won his first competitive Academy Award Oscar - the Best Actor award for his starring appearance opposite Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond (1981). This was only the fifth film in Oscar history to have Oscars wins for Best Actor and Actress in the same film. It was the only time that Henry Fonda was teamed with his real-life daughter Jane, and the only time he starred with veteran actress Katharine Hepburn. It was undoubtedly a 'career' Oscar win for Fonda - a tribute to his long, distinguished career of film-making. [At 76 years of age, Fonda was the oldest nominee and winner in the Best Actor category in Academy history.] Fonda had been nominated for Best Actor only once before - forty one years earlier for The Grapes of Wrath (1940), but had lost the award. The gap of time between acting nominations was a record in itself.
1981
The Best Picture winner this year was a surprise and major upset win for British producer David Puttnam's low-budget Chariots of Fire (1981, UK), directed by Hugh Hudson, with seven nominations and four wins. The win signaled the start of another mini-British renaissance of film awards for this year and the next - with Gandhi (1982) soon breaking all British film Oscar records.
1981
Director Wolfgang Petersen's gripping submarine war film Das Boot (1981, Germ.) was released in the US in 1982, and soon became one of the best films in world cinema.
1981
There were three significant werewolf horror films released in 1981: writer/director John Landis' An American Werewolf in London (1981, UK/US), director Michael Wadleigh's Wolfen (1981), and director Joe Dante's The Howling (1981).
1981
In the werewolf film The Howling (1981), several of the characters were named after famous werewolf horror film movie directors: George Waggner (The Wolf Man (1941)), (Roy) William Neill (Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943)), Terence Fisher (The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)), and Freddie Francis (Legend of the Werewolf (1975)), etc.
1981
For the first time in Academy Awards history, there was a competitive Oscar category for Best Makeup. Rick Baker won for writer/director John Landis' An American Werewolf in London (1981, UK/US).
1981
MGM made a comeback when it was split into a hotel empire and a movie company in 1980, and then acquired United Artists. UA was on the verge of bankruptcy due to director Michael Cimino's disastrous Heaven's Gate (1981). The regular release of James Bond films provided most of the studio's hits for the remainder of the decade.
1981
Transamerica, the parent company of financially-ailing United Artists, sold the company to MGM for about $350 million.
1981
MTV (Music Television), a music video channel on cable, was launched 24/7 on August 1, 1981. Its style of fast-moving montage was influential on films such as Flashdance (1983).
1981
CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite signed off for the final time - on March 6, 1981, with his trademark departing catchphrase line: "And that's the way it is." He had served almost 20 years in the role.
1981
Steven Spielberg's summer box-office hit Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) was the biggest box-office hit (domestic) of the year 1981. It was a breathlessly-paced throwback to cliff-hanging, non-stop action/adventure films of the past. This was the first collaboration between two legendary American film-makers, producer George Lucas and director Spielberg. Spielberg's phenomenally successful film, that cost only $23 million and made almost $210 million (it took in almost double the business of second-placed On Golden Pond (1981) at $119 million). Its success contributed to the demand for bigger blockbusters.

It introduced the character of daredevil-archaeologist Indiana Jones and was the first of three Indiana Jones films (from 1981-1989) with a fourth film added in 2008, and went on to make Harrison Ford a major, bankable A-list star (in addition to his original and iconic Star Wars appearances as Han Solo in the late 70s and early 80s). Ford began his film acting career as a minor character in George Lucas' American Graffiti (1973), and as a bit player in Coppola's The Conversation (1974) (and Apocalypse Now (1979)).
1981
43 year-old actress Natalie Wood accidentally drowned off Santa Catalina Island, on November 29, 1981, near spouse Robert Wagner's yacht Splendour, during the filming of Peter Hyam's Brainstorm (1983). This necessitated the alteration and rewriting of the final posthumously-released film around her disappearance. Ironically, the film dealt with the question of the afterlife.
1981
The organization to present Golden Raspberry Awards (or Razzies) was founded in 1981, to honor the 'worst' in film in a ceremony modeling the Academy Awards. Many of the first Razzies in its first year of existence were presented to the "Worst Picture" of the year, Can't Stop the Music (1980) starring the Village People. Neil Diamond won 'Worst Actor' for The Jazz Singer (1980), and Brooke Shields was awarded 'Worst Actress' for The Blue Lagoon (1980).
1981
Cult director John Waters paid homage to 60s' era Smell-O-Vision (inspired by William Castle's mystery film Scent of Mystery (1960)) with scratch-and-sniff "Odorama" cards for his classic film Polyester (1981).
1981
John W. Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981 outside a Washington, DC hotel. Notoriously, Martin Scorsese's film Taxi Driver (1976) was linked to and may have triggered the political assassination (copy-cat) attempt by the inconspicuous John Hinckley, illuminating his dangerous fixation on young actress Jodie Foster who had hoped that his "historical deed" would impress her and gain her "respect and love." Ultimately, it resulted in the assassin's infamous media-hero status - he was tried and found not guilty for reasons of insanity in 1982 and thereafter was confined to a Washington DC mental hospital.
1981
President Ronald Reagan supported government spending on abstinence education to prevent teen pregnancy (by promoting chastity and self-discipline), with the passage of the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA). The prevalence of permissive attitudes, and of sex in films (the 80s was the age of the teenage sex comedy), TV, and in music helped to spur this movement ("Just say no").
1981
French director Abel Gance's silent film and epic masterpiece Napoleon (1927, Fr.) was finally restored by 1980 after many years of work by silent film historian Kevin Brownlow. The restored film was first screened in London in 1979 using the three projector format with a score composed and conducted by Carl Davis. 89 year-old Gance was in attendance when it was screened for a small crowd at the Telluride Film Festival in late summer 1979. The first major screening of the restored film, shown in its entirety and presented by Francis Ford Coppola, occurred at New York's Radio City Music Hall on January 23, 1981. Gance died ten months later, in Paris, in early November of 1981, at the age of 92.
1981
Bo Derek, the wife of director/cinematographer John Derek (30 years older than she was) - after her prominent appearance in Blake Edwards' comedy 10 (1979), appeared with top-billing as the producer of the R-rated redo Tarzan, The Ape Man (1981). This was one of four films directed by her husband, essentially a showcase for Bo's naked body. The makers of the film were sued by the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate over unflattering resemblances to the original novel, and some of the offending footage was deleted. Even so, Bo was topless throughout much of the latter part of the film, and her bare nipple was kissed by a chimpanzee. The film was nominated for six Razzie Awards, with Bo taking the sole honor of "Worst Actress" (she was tied with Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest (1981)).
1981
The dramatic biopic Mommie Dearest (1981) starred Faye Dunaway in a scenery-chewing role as crazed Joan Crawford, spewing the immortal rant: "No wire hangers!" The film - a campy cult favorite for its unintentional humor, was based on the 1978 published "tell-all" memoirs (of the same name) written by Crawford's adopted daughter Christina, with claims that Crawford was abusive as an unfit mother (with violent temper tantrums), bi-sexual, alcoholic, and neurotically obsessive about cleanliness.
1981
After a 20-year absence from making films, film star James Cagney returned to the screen by appearing in director Milos Forman's Ragtime (1981), as the character of NYPD Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo. It was the final feature film for both Cagney and Pat O'Brien (in the role of Mr. Delphin Delmas).
1981
Louis Malle's quirky low-budget My Dinner with Andre (1981), essentially a lengthy dinner conversation between two individuals with opposite personalities (a theatre director and a playwright/actor), was an unexpected hit. The art-house independent film, a meditation on life, art, and modernity, was unique and not easy to repeat.


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