It was a new decade and a new Hollywood. 1970 was the year when Five Easy Pieces won the New York Critics Award as the best film of the year, and the Hollywood Foreign Press chose an irreverent comedy from an unknown director as the year’s best musical or comedy. Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H almost didn’t make it to the screen.
According to Altman, as revealed at a much later HFPA press conference, “The studio didn’t much care for it because there were three other war movies going on at the time. There was Patton, Tora! Tora! Tora!, and one other still in production. So they weren’t interested in our movie; in fact, I mistakenly got a memo from somebody at Fox, which said, ‘don’t worry about that picture, it’s going straight to a drive-in.’ Nobody cared about it or had any hopes at all.”
“And when they finally allowed it out, it was by mistake, and we can thank the Stanford football team for that, cause Dick Zanuck flew up to San Francisco, the excuse was to attend the sneak preview of M*A*S*H, which he didn’t care anything about, he went up to see the football game. “After the game, he went into that theater, which was a 3,200-seater showing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And then when our film came on, the audience just went berserk.
“And I remember going over to him at his seat saying, ‘You’ve got to listen to these people who have seen this. You cannot change...’ The studio had wanted all the operations cut out. “Luckily Darryl Zanuck, the old man, was back in the U.S. He had brought with him two young French girls, who were friends of his, and they said, ‘You don’t want to cut this, the film is perfect.’ And he listened to them, and those two young French girls saved the picture. Otherwise, nobody would have seen it.”
During production, the film was beset with problems. The cast, unaccustomed to Altman’s unorthodox filming methods, tried to get him fired. The film made stars of Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland and gave new opportunities for others in the cast including Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, and Tom Skerritt. Gould later sent a letter of apology to Altman and worked again with him on his two best movies, The Long Goodbye and California Split. Sutherland never worked with him again.
The movie was a box office smash and later proved a goldmine for the studio when its TV spinoff became the most successful series of the decade. That year it was the darling of the New York cognoscenti who had previously worshipped at the shrine of Ingmar Bergman.
The Golden Globes for Best Actor and Actress in a Musical Comedy went to Albert Finney for Scrooge and Carrie Snodgress for Diary of a Mad Housewife. The best motion picture drama that year was awarded to Love Story, which walked off with five major Golden Globes despite competition from Patton and Five Easy Pieces.