Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) and Thomas More (Paul Scofield) discuss whether king or god comes first in A Man for All Seasons (1966)

The 39th annual Academy Awards, for the film year 1966.  The nominations were announced on February 20, 1967 and the awards were held on April 10, 1967.

Best Picture:  A Man for All Seasons

  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  • The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming
  • Alfie
  • The Sand Pebbles

Most Surprising Omission:  The Professionals

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  The Professionals

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #41

The Race: Throughout the summer of 1966, all the talk, awards and otherwise, was about two films that were pushing the boundaries of the Production Code, yet had both been passed: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Alfie.  Both were box office successes, both were getting rave reviews and with the language in Woolf and the sex in Alfie, the Code was headed for its eventual end.  Then came two films in December.  The first was Blow-Up, a British film whose nudity ended up with it not earning Code approval, yet was released anyway and the critics couldn’t stop raving.  The other was A Man for All Seasons, directed by Oscar winner Fred Zinnemann and written by Oscar winner Robert Bolt from his own Tony Award winning play.

The first award came from the New York Film Critics and it was all about A Man for All Seasons, as it won Picture, Director, Screenplay and Actor.  The New York magazine writers, tired of being denied entry to the NYFC, formed their own critics group: The National Society of Film Critics.  The new group showed their hipness by giving their Best Picture and Director to Blow-Up.  The National Board of Review was next and for only the fourth time a film won Picture and Director from both the NBR and the NYFC.  Man just kept winning: Best Director at the Directors Guild, Picture, Director, Screenplay and Actor at the Golden Globes.  It missed at the Writers Guild, but was likely ineligible.  It was a heavy favorite going in to the Oscars.  The only question was what would join it.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf had won some critics awards for Best Actress, had won the WGA, earned a DGA nomination and 7 Golden Globe noms (though no wins), so it was probably in.  Alfie had a DGA nom and several Golden Globe noms, including a win for Best English Language Foreign Film.  With 10 nominees, the DGA hadn’t clarified the race as much as usual.  Born Free and Grand Prix were unlikely contenders, but it still left The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming (a likelihood with the Golden Globe for Best Picture – Comedy and a win at the WGA), The Sand Pebbles (which had a WGA nom and Golden Globe noms for Picture and Director), The Professionals (which also had a WGA nom and a Globe nom for Picture), A Man and a Woman (which had a Best Director Globe nom and won Best Foreign Film) and Georgy Girl (which had several Globe noms and good reviews).  The only contender not nominated at the DGA was Blow-Up.

The Results: Blow-Up was in for Best Director, but out for Picture.  Joining it in that dubious distinction were The Professionals and A Man and a Woman (the fifth foreign film in seven years – it was now 28 years since a foreign film had earned a nomination for Best Picture at the Oscars).  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was in the pole position with 13 nominations, but A Man for All Seasons, with 8, was still the likely winner.  The also-rans without a Director nomination were Alfie, The Sand Pebbles and Russians.  In the end, though Woolf would win 5 Oscars, A Man for All Seasons would best it with 6, including Picture, Director, Screenplay and Actor.

the kind of solid production the Academy favors: A Man for All Seasons (1966)

A Man for All Seasons

  • Director:  Fred Zinnemann
  • Writer:  Robert Bolt  (from his play)
  • Producer:  Fred Zinnemann
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Paul Scofield, Wendy Hiller, Robert Shaw, Leo McKern, Orson Welles, Susannah York, John Hurt
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium, Actor (Scofield), Supporting Actor (Shaw), Supporting Actress (Hiller), Cinematography (Color), Costume Design (Color)
  • Oscar Points:  470
  • Length:  120 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Historical)
  • Box Office Gross:  $28.35 mil  (#5  –  1966)
  • Release Date:  12 December 1966
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #101  (nominees)  /  #33  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Scofield), Supporting Actor (Shaw), Supporting Actress (Hiller), Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  335

The Film:  A Man for All Seasons is one of those films that does everything just right, but seems to lack that certain something that really pushes it to the top of the heap.  It is a great film, well-written, well-made with excellent acting, most notably the Oscar winning performance by Paul Scofield as Thomas More, a performance filled with immense dignity and clarity.  But it seems to lack passion.  In a sense it wants to be too cerebral.  Perhaps it is good that Robert Shaw comes in to the middle of the film to liven things up a bit.

The film is based on Robert Bolt’s Tony Award winning play (interestingly enough, only 4 Tony Award winners for Best Play have gone on to win the Best Picture Oscar and three of them were in a row – My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and this – the only other one was Amadeus).  It is the story of Sir Thomas More, the man who coined the word utopia in his novel, was the personal adviser for many years to Henry VIII, was a scholar and lawyer and one of the most important men in England.  This is the story of his downfall, caused by his refusal to bend to Henry’s will and approve of his divorce from Catherine and allow him to marry Anne Boleyn.

Getting your history in lessons from films is not the greatest idea in the world, but it’s easy to piece together a good chunk of 16th Century British history from the movies.  From The Private Life of Henry VIII and A Man for All Seasons, you can follow through Anne of the Thousand Days then on to Lady Jane, Elizabeth, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Mary Queen of Scots and then on to anything about the later years of Elizabeth’s realm when Shakespeare was writing.  This covers the period in which Henry would break from the Catholic Church in order to set himself up as the head of his own church.  The film begins with Cardinal Wolsey (in a small but fantastic performance from Orson Welles) is unable to procure the divorce that Henry wants from his first wife, according to Henry because he has finally realized he is breaking Biblical law some 20 years after the fact, but mainly because she hadn’t produced a son and he thought his new mistress, Anne, would.  With Wolsey gone, Henry makes Thomas More his Lord Chancellor, but he makes the mistake that Henry II made before him – he finds a man who will end up being more devoted to the church than to the king.  Thomas will do what he feels is right, no matter what his king says, no matter that it may cost him his life.

The heart of the film is caught up in the performance of Paul Scofield as More.  He is smart, witty, and most of all, dignified.  But he is also surrounded by other great performances – Wendy Hiller as his devoted wife, John Hurt, in an early role, as the traitorous Richard Rich and, of course, Robert Shaw, boisterous and loud and charismatic as Henry VIII, the man determined to make sure that the most powerful person in England was not the Pope, but the King.  But More will not buy into that theory and will pay the price.  But he will go there, as ever, with dignity.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966): not an enjoyable time, but one hell of a film

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

  • Director:  Mike Nichols
  • Writer:  Ernest Lehman  (from the play by Edward Albee)
  • Producer:  Ernest Lehman
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, George Segal, Sandy Dennis
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium, Actor (Burton), Actress (Taylor), Supporting Actor (Segal), Supporting Actress (Dennis), Editing, Cinematography (Black-and-White), Original Music Score, Sound, Art Direction (Black-and-White), Costume Design (Black-and-White)
  • Oscar Points:  520
  • Length:  131 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Box Office Gross:  $33.73 mil  (#3  –  1966)
  • Release Date:  22 June 1966
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #37  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Burton), Actress (Taylor), Supporting Actor (Segal), Supporting Actress (Dennis), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  690

The Film:  Why do we watch films?  Is it for pure entertainment, to enjoy ourselves?  Or do we watch them because they are works of art?  In the end, there are elements of both.  But certain films only work well on one side of the equation.  There are many films, especially big blockbusters, that only work as entertainment.  But there are also films that are very difficult to enjoy, very hard to watch, but most certainly are works of art.  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf certainly falls on the art side of that question.  It is one of the best acted films ever made, a very smart, dark film, brilliantly written, expertly directed by a first-time film director, Mike Nichols, who would go on to become one of the Top 100 Directors of All-Time.  It is a film so well made that the only four credited actors were all nominated for an Oscar and in fact it was nominated in every category in which it was eligible.  Even more impressive it deserved almost all of those nominations (it earned a Best Sound nomination which it didn’t really deserve, but that’s common for the Academy and its Costume Design nomination was a very big sign that the Academy needed to do away with the black-and-white split).

It had been a smash hit as a Broadway play, the kind of dark, smart, brooding play that Broadway has worshiped since the days of Eugene O’Neill, a perfect heir to A Streetcar Named Desire, All My Sons and Long Day’s Journey Into Night.  Edward Albee, the play’s author, wanted to cast Bette Davis and Henry Fonda in the film (which would have been surreal – to watch Davis mock herself) but Ernest Lehman, the producer and writer (though most of the script is straight from the play) came upon the inspired idea to cast Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.  It was a trick designed to increase box office (it worked perfectly, making it the third biggest film of the year) and it easily could have backfired.  Instead, it turned out to be the most brilliant idea about the whole project.

Taylor had somehow missed out on the Oscar in 1958 and had managed to somehow win the Oscar in 1960, mostly because she had almost died.  Burton had been nominated four times (including both of the previous years), yet had never won.  Both of them would respond with two incredible performances.  Taylor would go on to win (and with no objections this time) and Burton would only manage to lose because of the over-whelming dignity of Paul Scofield’s performance in A Man for All Seasons (helped by its impressive haul of 6 Oscars).  Backing them up in the secondary roles were George Segal and Sandy Dennis and both of them give performances that they still have yet to equal.

This film is a long dark night of the soul.  Burton and Taylor are George and Martha.  He is a history teacher at a small New England college and she is the daughter of the college president.  They have been married for years and the manner in which they attack each other through the night will be familiar to anyone who has lived through a bad marriage (whether their own or their parents).  But what adds to it is the younger couple, a new faculty member and his wife, who come over for a night of drinks after a faculty party.  What gets revealed over the course of the evening springs harsh realities on both marriages.  Certainly what George does to conclude the night could be considered horrifying were it not for the night that drove him to it and the horrifying truth behind it all in the first place.

In the end, in spite of the box office success, in spite of the brilliant of the film and its performances, it failed to win at the Oscars.  It had lost everything at the Globes (0 for 7 – a record that still stands), but would win at the BAFTA Awards and the WGA and it wins from me.  It is powerful and haunting and unbelievably damn depressing.  But it is, above all, a work of unquestionable art.

Why remake a film done right in the first place?

Alfie

  • Director:  Lewis Gilbert
  • Writer:  Bill Naughton  (from his play)
  • Producer:  Lewis Gilbert
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Michael Caine, Shelley Winters, Vivien Merchant
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium, Actor (Caine), Supporting Actress (Merchant), Song (“Alfie”)
  • Oscar Points:  165
  • Length:  114 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Box Office Gross:  $18.87 mil
  • Release Date:  24 August 1966
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #8  (year)  /  #259  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Caine), Supporting Actress (Merchant), Song  (“Alfie”)
  • Nighthawk Points:  115

The Film:  It had been a long time since I had seen Alfie and it was pretty strange to see it again.  First of all, I had always listed it as a comedy, perhaps because it had been a long time and there was so much sex in it and a lot of funny lines, but it really is a drama.  Second, I was unprepared to have Michael Caine step out of the car, look straight at me and start talking to me.  Perhaps because it is really a drama and breaking the fourth wall is something that is generally reserved for comedies.  Or perhaps that’s why I thought of it as a comedy in the first place?

Either way, there was no question that this was the birth of a star.  While The Ipcress File might have made Michael Caine known, this was the film that really established him as an actor (although it is too bad that Terrence Stamp, who had starred in the play refused to do the film – I think he might have done a wonderful job and perhaps become a bigger star, which he clearly deserved to be).  Caine does something that is incredibly difficult to do: he takes a rather despicable person, one who deserves very little sympathy and makes him not only sympathetic but likable.  This clearly isn’t the screenplay at work, though the film is well written (the use of British slang is impressive, in the way Alfie never sounds stilted or written, but very natural, in spite of his manner of speaking).  After all, Alfie continually does things that are really beyond the pale.  But it isn’t until near the end of the film that we really begin to lose patience for him.  This is also partially a product of its time.  A major reason that the remake was such a failure was that the middle 60’s provided a strange sense of sexual freedom – people suddenly began to believe that they could actually have fun while still trying to deal with the kind of responsibilities, in terms of marriage and children and even employment, that they felt weighed down their parents generation.  Alfie in 1966 seems like a natural product of the times in which he lives.  Alfie in 2004 just seems like a boy who doesn’t want to grow up.

There’s no question that the heart of the emotions in the film come towards the end.  Of all the women in and out of Alfie’s life, the one performance that really garnered notice was Vivien Merchant as the rather plain wife of Alfie’s roommate when he is convalescing whom Alfie manages to impregnate without even a whole lot of desire involved.  He suddenly has to figure out what to do and so he brings in an abortionist.  Abortion was still illegal at this time and the man, played by Denholm Elliot in a very memorable but short performance is brutal and quick to size up the situation.  After he is done, when he is leaving, he doesn’t hesitate to simply tell Alfie what needs to be done (“Two if she sweats.”).  More than actually fathering a child, more than problems with his health, more than any woman leaving him, this is the moment that breaks Alfie’s view of his current life.  That this man who is committing a crime should have such obvious contempt for Alfie seems to be more than he can bear.

So what do we think of Alfie?  I find it to be a better film than I remembered – more original, better directed (it never feels like a play like so many adaptations from the stage do), better written.  It has all the great acting I remembered.  It is a very good film, one of the better examples of what British film-making was doing at the time.  As for the man?  Well, more kudos to Michael Caine for being so convincing in the role and making Alfie so welcome on the screen for so long.  Because he really is contemptible.  And that duality is what makes the film so good.

a funny little film mostly forgotten: The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming (1966)

The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming

  • Director:  Norman Jewison
  • Writer:  William Rose  (from the novel The Off-Islanders by Nathaniel Benchley)
  • Producer:  Norman Jewison
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Alan Arkin, Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint, Theodore Bikel
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium, Actor (Arkin), Editing
  • Oscar Points:  150
  • Length:  126 min
  • Genre:  Comedy  (Satire)
  • Box Office Gross:  $21.69 mil
  • Release Date:  25 May 1966
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #9  (year)  /  #261  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Arkin), Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  100

The Film:  Which is more improbable: that the film get nominated for Best Picture or that it even got made in the first place?  After all, it had a star that no one had ever heard of playing a Russian sailor, was a satire about the Cold War during the height of Vietnam that actually dared to show the Russians with considerable sympathy.  But then it managed to becomes a box office hit, turned Alan Arkin into a star, won the Golden Globe for Best Picture – Comedy and was able to take advantage of the fact that the Academy voters tend not to choose Foreign films (A Man and a Woman), Westerns (The Professionals) or avant-garde art films (Blow-Up) for Best Picture even if they do nominate them for Best Director.  Even today it is not widely written about and is not widely seen (only 11 nominees since have fewer votes on the IMDb).

But it is a damn funny film.  A Soviet submarine crashes into a bank on Gloucester Island (for those of us in Massachusetts there is extra hilarity at their attempt to pronounce the name of the island) and a group of crew members go onshore to see if they can find a boat to tow the sub out to deeper water.  The first thing they do is kidnap a family so they can find directions to a boat.  This provides fodder for the rest of the film as Arkin, playing the group leader in a brilliant performance that gives a foreshadowing of the wonderful career ahead of him, continually runs into Carl Reiner as the writer whose house happens to be the one Arkin invades.  Reiner is a perfect type of straight man for all of this action to play out against.

What takes all of it to the next level is what happens as the other people on the island slowly begin to learn that they have been invaded.  Any island with Jonathan Winters on the police force and Paul Ford as an influential member of the community isn’t going to take this lying down.  They’re going to react like complete idiots and moving on from there.  We get a police force that doesn’t know what the hell is going on, an elderly woman on a motorcycle that appears not to have any brakes and a messenger who can’t seem to catch up to his horse so he can deliver the message.  In the middle of all of this is Arkin, who just wants to find a boat so he can get the hell away from all these crazy people.

This film works for the same reason that Dr. Strangelove works.  These aren’t crazy people.  They are acting with all sincerity.  It’s the world that’s crazy.

It’s not so surprising that the film was nominated for Best Picture but not the director.  Norman Jewison has never been able to quite make it into the company of the elite.  He has done some good directing and the film is decently directed, but doesn’t quite have the urgency it would have had from a truly great director.  Jewison has had five films nominated for Best Picture but he twice failed to get nominated for Best Director and he is one of those directors to fail to win Best Director when his film won Best Picture (for In the Heat of the Night).  Of the baker’s dozen of directors who twice were passed over for Best Director in the years when there were five Best Picture nominees (1944-2008), he is the only one to suffer the further ignominy of also not winning when his film did.

another boring Robert Wise film: The Sand Pebbles (1966)

The Sand Pebbles

  • Director:  Robert Wise
  • Writer:  Robert Anderson  (from the novel by Richard McKenna)
  • Producer:  Robert Wise
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Candace Bergen, Mako
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Actor (McQueen), Supporting Actor (Mako), Editing, Cinematography (Color), Original Music Score, Sound, Art Direction (Color)
  • Oscar Points:  230
  • Length:  182 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Box Office Gross:  $30.01 mil  (#4  –  1966)
  • Release Date:  20 December 1966
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #57  (year)  /  #413  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Supporting Actor (Mako), Sound
  • Nighthawk Points:  50

The Film:  There’s no question that Steve McQueen was one of the biggest stars of the decade.  In films like The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and Bullitt, he constantly proved to the world how he was easily the coolest person on the planet.  He even proved several times during the decade that he could actually act, whether it be as a cool thief (The Thomas Crown Affair) or the charming love interest (Love with the Proper Stranger).  The Sand Pebbles is out of place in that it might be McQueen’s best performance, but to do so, unlike his other solid acting, he seemed to make his star power disappear.  This wouldn’t be a problem in a stronger film.  But this film is overlong, not well directed, not particularly well written and drags through long stretches.  It is a reminder that the Robert Wise of this is the same overlong meandering director who made The Sound of Music, that his editing of Citizen Kane clearly did not make him a world class director and that much of the phenomenal direction of West Side Story must have come from Jerome Robbins.

The Sand Pebbles is a mediocre film that had the potential to be a very good film.  It is about a talented, but isolated engineer aboard an American naval ship in China in the 1920’s.  While maintaining his personal distance, loving only his engine, he gets involved in local events, including the love of one of his few friends for a native and his attachment to a young woman and her missionary father.  Events overtake them and he is forced to watch the young Chinese man who he has been training die (at his own hands, to save an even worse death) and then the ship must go make a desperate rescue of the missionary and his daughter.

There are two problems at work in the film here.  The first is that the missionary and his daughter should have been rescued much earlier.  They refuse to be removed, but later the ship has to go back for them placing everyone in danger.  The missionary again refuses but this time they make him leave.  If they had just done that in the first place all the tragedy of the conclusion of the film could have been avoided.  The film obviously is moving towards a tragic conclusion, but the way it achieves it makes it feel so meaningless.

But then much of the film has already felt like that.  It is simply so slow.  We can figure out almost every event that will happen before it unfolds, even the tragic ones.  If Wise had cut a good hour off the film, he could have tightened up the film, focused less on the subplots (the subplot with Attenborough feels likes too much of a re-hash of the same subplot we had already seen involving Red Buttons in Sayonara) and kept the focus on McQueen.  After all, even though he ditches the cool demeanor, his is a solid performance and the Academy rewarded him for it with his only Oscar nomination.  But the film gets quite boring after a while and it’s likely without the combined star power of McQueen and Wise (who was coming off his Oscar for The Sound of Music), the film probably would have gone nowhere.  Which is really where it deserved to go.

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