The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1966
I liken 1966 to 1999. I think it’s because the film that won Best Picture that year is a very — stagy — film. Not that it’s a bad film, but — it goes back to that old cinematic vs. theatrical distinction. By and large, I usually prefer films to be cinematic, because, cinema is a different entity than plays. Which, also — here’s the difference, if you don’t get it — Martin Scorsese movie, like, The Departed — cinematic. There are irises, zoom ins, tracking shots, all of it. (Also, another great example people will recognize quickly — Fight Club — very cinematic.) Doubt — theatrical film. Revolutionary Road — theatrical film. Films that feel like plays. Because, very often, they were. They’re often directed by actors or actual playwrights. Ya follah?
And therein lies the rub. When your favorite film of the year (or at least, of the nominees. One you feel is deserving of winning Best Picture) is a very stagy film — more so than the usual standards — and a fellow nominee is a very cinematic film, but you just didn’t love it as much — what do you do? Bringing it back to a primordial level — say you always sided with good, but, in one instance, evil actually was right. (I’m not calling one thing out and out “evil” — though I will say, you don’t want a movie to be like a play, just like you don’t want a play to be like a movie. It’s like reading a novel that’s written like a movie. (Looking at you, Dan Brown.) It’s a fun read (for most), but you’re not giving it a book award. Shit. I could have saved all that space if I made that analogy first. But, I’ll get more into this issue when I deal with the year itself.
Now, this cinematic vs. theatrical problem does extend over to the acting categories as well. Which person would you rather see win an Academy Award — the dude who plays Hamlet in a film, and basically just takes the entire text of the play as he’s done it on stage and puts it on film, or the dude who plays a migrant worker who goes down to Mexico with his friend and an old prospector, finds lots of gold and slowly loses his mind because he starts to think the other two are going to kill him and steal his share of the gold? See what I mean? Who you gonna wanna vote for — Othello or Atticus Finch? It’s a tough choice to make, and is exponentially tougher when, you actually kinda want to vote for Othello.
Oh, yeah, the rest of the year. A Man for All Seasons swept that year. Took home Picture and Director. And a bunch of other shit too, including this category. Best Actress was Elizabeth Taylor and Best Supporting Actress was Sandy Dennis, both for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Which, is fitting, because, those are really the two films of this year to talk about. And the ones we will talk about most. Oh, yeah, Best Supporting Actor was Walter Matthau for The Fortune Cookie. (Hey, Walter Matthau!)
So, now, the category. This category is kind of a — pop quiz hotshot — on the spot moment. What do you do?
BEST ACTOR – 1966
And the nominees were…
Alan Arkin, The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming
Richard Burton, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Michael Caine, Alfie
Steve McQueen, The Sand Pebbles
Paul Scofield, A Man for All Seasons
Arkin — I love Alan Arkin. Who doesn’t? The man is awesome. He’s been giving great performances for four decades now. It’s great to think that someone who, nowadays is largely forgotten about — at least he was largely forgotten about. After Glengarry Glen Ross he barely showed up in a movie until Little Miss Sunshine — was actually a pretty big star back in the day. And versatile too. 1966 he gives us this performance, 1967 he was a cold-blooded killer in Wait Until Dark, and in 1968 he was a tender deaf-mute. I don’t see today’s actors giving you that kind of range.
Anyway, this movie is a classic Cold War farce, the kind you never see anymore (and in the country we live in, will never see again). It’s the lighter alternative to Dr. Strangelove. That is, instead of a dark comedy about nuclear destruction, this is a comedy about the Cold War. Both were nominated for Best Picture, so, there’s at least some basis for comparison. Nowadays if you made an (American) comedy about the war in Iraq, you’d catch so much shit for it — that, I really want to do one. And I’m talking smart comedy. Or at least, functionally capable comedy. Which, I guess is probably why today’s comedies wouldn’t ever broach the subject. No one has the intelligence to do so. What’s the last intelligent comedy to come out? Anyone? Anyone? I can’t think of one either.
So, this movie is about Carl Reiner and his family, who’ve been on vacation on Cape Cod for a month, or something like that. And they’re just about ready to go home. And as this happens, a Russian submarine, which was stationed just of the coast, breaks down. This is basically the funny version of 49th Parallel. And they come ashore, not speaking any English (or at least, just enough to get by as tourists), and are so clearly not American it’s great. And they’re running around the cape, causing mayhem, and people see them, but don’t see them, and it’s almost like a monster movie (not really, just the way the plot develops on a pure narrative level) in that, one person sees them, but no one else believes it (“Oh, he’s just drunk again”), then it’s a series of random encounters until they realize they’re there and all hell breaks loose. And then the town bands together to capture them, and they’re a comedic town, so no one can do anything correctly, and only the level-headed protagonist is capable of doing anything, but at that point he realizes the Russians mean no harm (at least, the ones on shore don’t), and is now actually helping them escape, because he knows that the rest of the town will kill them if they find them. It’s kind of like E.T.
Arkin plays the co-captain of the submarine — basically the second in command. I don’t know what his actual title is. And the majority of his performance is in Russian. He speaks stilted sentences in English. Like, “Where we go, get gas?” and “You, don’t talk. We, no harm. Don’t, phone police.” Like that. Just what he needs to get by. The rest of the performance is either wordless or in Russian. Which, is a trait I feel we’ve lost nowadays. Too often to writers (of filmmakers. It’s possible they’re the ones adding the lines) add in useless lines just for the sake of the character speaking. When instead, just having them not speak, and you know, perform, with their face, would work just fine. But I’ll skip the rant, because, it’s coming.
So, Arkin goes around, trying to find a motor to get the submarine working again, and he’s trying to keep his officers from being noticed because, if they’re noticed, then they’ll have to shoot people, they’ll get chased, bad things will happen. If they can get the motor and leave unnoticed, then they get the ship working, and they dive again and stay under the water. Because that’s all they need to do. They just stay under water and wait for orders to attack (which, it’s the Cold War — it’s not happening). And as the film progresses, both sides gain respect for the other. You know. And then, the climax of the film is when the captain of the submarine threatens to blow up the town and kill everyone if the men are not returned to him. And there’s a big Mexican standoff, and Arkin is like, “Don’t do it,” and disobeys a superior. And at that moment, the mob is upon them, and a child, watching from the roof of a house, slips and gets stuck hanging from the gutter. And Arkin and everyone band together and create a human pyramid to help get the kid down. Seriously. It’s a farce, what did you expect? And then, after that happens, we find out this idiot police chief (who’s that over the top character that is in the armory before anything’s even happened, ready for war, bandoliers and shit all around him) called in the Air Force, and then the entire town rides out to the submarine with the men, protecting them from any fire. It’s a fun movie.
However, Arkin’s performance, while entertaining, is not the kind that wins Oscars. It just isn’t. He’s great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the right type of comic performance that is worthy enough for an Oscar (see Dudley Moore for an Oscar-worthy comic performance). You’ll understand when you see it. It’s kind of a miracle he was even nominated. Which, I’ll take it. But, still, no vote.
Burton — Oh man, this is the finest performance Richard Burton ever gave on film. Which, is saying something. This and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in the year before this are his two finest moments.
This film is, if you didn’t know, basically a play on film. The entire cast consists of about, six people, and two of them are pointless. They’re just there, running a diner the characters take a jaunt to midway through the film. Essentially the cast is four characters. And what’s even cooler is — the entire (credited) cast of this film was nominated for Oscars. Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, George Segal and Sandy Dennis. The women won their respective categories. The men were not so fortunate.
Quick trivia time: Only three films in the history of the Academy Awards have ever had their entire cast nominated for Oscars. This film is one of them (disregarding the two extras that appear briefly in one scene). The other two are Sleuth, which literally is a film that only has Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier in it, and Give ‘Em Hell Harry, which is basically a one-man show with James Whitmore (aka Brooks from The Shawshank Redemption) about Harry S. Truman. (It’s about the equivalent of them shooting a film of that new Lombardi show that everyone’s talking about and having the dude get nominated for Best Actor. That won’t happen, since we have basic cable now, but that’s what it’s like.) That one isn’t really one that counts, but, technically, it does count. The other one that works here, but is very unofficial, is Doubt. Doubt, had its entire credited cast — Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis — nominated for acting Oscars. The problem is, there are clearly lots of other speaking roles in the film. There are classes full of children and shit. So that one isn’t officially recognized. Still, that’s something, right?
So the movie is about two college professors — I believe the movie was shot at Yale — or rather, he’s a professor, she’s the daughter of the President of the college — who are aging, in a bitter marriage, and fight like fucking fiends (it’s fucking incredible to see them go at it), and have two of their colleagues, a young married couple (professor and his wife), over for drinks one night. And the film is structured very intelligently. It starts with them, drunk as all hell, returning from a faculty party the night before, and they’re all drunk and amorous, still in their “public personas.” They’re acting like the married couple they’re supposed to be. (In a sense, this movie is like Revolutionary Road, only better and more concise.) Then, once they get inside (and sober up), they pass out. Then the next day, we see how they really are. They don’t talk, they are bitter toward one another, it’s business only. Brief exchanges, living their own separate lives.
Then the couple comes over later on, and they have a few drinks. And they start talking, and pretty quickly, the two devolve into an argument. And the young couple is feeling pretty awkward. But they tell them not to leave. And over the course of the evening, the young couple just gets involved in the argument. They start arguing on either side for certain parts, they have arguments themselves, and the whole thing gets really fucking contentious. I don’t even want to talk about what happens, I just want you to watch it. It’s fucking fascinating to see them act. It is a riveting film.
The film was also the only film in the history of the Academy Awards to be nominated in every category in which it was eligible. No other film has achieved this. It’s a great, great film. Directed by Mike Nichols. Aka the dude who directed The Graduate. And a lot of other stuff. Look him up if you don’t know him. The last thing he directed was Charlie Wilson’s War. That should about cover 85% of the people who don’t know who he is.
Anyway — Burton. Burton is nothing short of brilliant in this movie. Granted, Liz is the best thing in it. The things she does with her character are fucking incredible. But, he is definitely not outshined in the least. And what makes the performances all the better is that they were actually married. I cannot speak highly enough of this performance. It’s a wonderfully acidic piece of work. Watching him and Liz go at it is nothing short of a thing of beauty. If there ever was a time where Best Actor and Best Actress should have come from the same film, this is it.
Caine — Michael Caine. the man is an international treasure. This is his starmaking role. Most people might know Alfie from its remake starring Jude Law. You may know the original starred Michael Caine, but you really don’t know what it’s about, even if you’ve seen the new version.
The movie is about a womanizing dick. That’s about the long and short of it. (Note: zing.) He’s got at least three girlfriends and just fucks them indiscriminately. We see him fucking a married woman and then breaking it off with her, because she’s older and he’s just not interested in her anymore. Usually the women he’s in relationships with are more attached to him than he is to them. And it’s a movie that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off owes a lot of debt to, since it’s the film where they got the whole direct address to the camera from. Alfie often just starts addressing us in the middle of a scene — even while fooling around with a woman. And no one else notices. It’s great.
Anyway, he’s having fun with these women, and we see he’s pretty misogynist, doesn’t really treat women with respect, mostly because they just throw themselves at him and he’s just grown up thinking that’s what they do, so that’s what they should do. And all of that changes when one of the girls he’s sleeping with gets pregnant. And the rest of the film is him learning to grow up. He knows he’s going to have a son, and starts to be more caring. Of course, it’s not an easy road. He still has commitment issues, which leads to the mother of the child marrying someone else. And eventually he gets banned from seeing the son, along with finding out he may have a spot of TB, which leads him to flip the fuck out. Because, the thought of mortality tends to affect those most like this. He also gets the wife of his friend pregnant, and really starts to figuring out he needs to change once she has an abortion and sees the fetus.
The great thing about the movie is that it’s brutally realistic. I mean that in the sense that, things don’t work out nicely for him. Eventually he decides to settle down, picking — Shelley Winters, actually. And he’s with her, and finally decides to ask her to marry him, and as he’s about to, finds her in bed with a younger man. And that’s how it ends, he’s like, “Now what?” It’s a great little movie. Especially for the 60s.
Michael Caine is great in the role. It allows him to play both drama and comedy at the same time. It’s a great role for him, too. Really shows his talents as an actor (the same goes for Sleuth). You don’t really see Michael Caine act act anymore. Usually he just does himself. (See: Morgan Freeman. Or pretty much any actor over 65.) I can’t really vote for him, because the other two performances are so great, but, he is really good in the role, and I highly recommend the movie. At least, over the Jude Law version. Jesus, that was an abortion.
McQueen — Steve McQueen. Who doesn’t love this man? The ultimate badass. This is his only real Oscar movie that he’s ever made. It’s strange that he played it. I wonder how hard he had to fight for it.
The movie is about a Navy machinist who is one of those rebel characters. He doesn’t listen to his superiors and doesn’t care what their agenda is. He does his own thing. He says fuck the system. And that gets him in heat with people, of course. They try to get him thrown off duty and such, but he rebels. And it’s one of those movies where, it starts very low-key, a small conflict, and we meet characters, then it escalates as the stuff around gets more dire. It takes place in 1920s China, and by the end of the film, there’s full blown shooting and war going on. It’s the standard Oscar formula. And, for once, McQueen gets to play sensitive and introverted rather than the personalities he’s used to playing.
However — I will say, I didn’t care so much about McQueen’s character in this movie as much as I cared about Richard Attenborough’s character. Or, Mako’s character. To me, Attenborough is the real character in the film I empathized with. He’s the one that falls in love with a Chinese woman, and she’s kind of a courtesan, but, doesn’t really do it because she’s in love with him, and it’s a forbidden love thing, and they both end up dying, which fuels McQueen’s rebelliousness further — all that.
So, McQueen is good, and I love that he got nominated, but he was never going to win. Even I, who looks for an excuse to vote for someone like McQueen, isn’t voting for him. It’s a shame. But, it’s how it is.
Scofield — A Man for All Seasons is one of those movies that, you don’t expect to really enjoy. And yet — damn. It’s about Henry VIII’s quest for a divorce. That whole, breaking away from the Catholic Church business. This is shown from the side of Thomas More, the Cardinal who refused to grant the divorce because divorce back then was going against Catholic rule.
The film starts with many people trying to get More to make up his mind. Orson Welles has a small role as a dying Cardinal. Robert Shaw is Henry VIII. John Hurt even shows up as a young acquaintance (who plays a much bigger role later on). And Scofield is shown as one of those men who is a lawyer at heart, as well as a deeply religious man. And he looks for any kind of flaw in the logic by which he can grant Henry the divorce, but ultimately it comes down to both allowing sin to occur and sinning himself. And we see him struggling with the decision because he knows, he decides one way, he gets in trouble with Henry, who will simply have him killed, and if he decides the other way, he gets in trouble with god. And he wrestles with it and ultimately decides to not grant the divorce. So Henry locks him up and puts him on trial. But, this is one of those To Kill a Mockingbird trials — one that you know, he can’t win. But, because he’s such a brilliant lawyer, when the trial happens, his entire defense basically does everything to prove that he is, in fact, not guilty. But, because there’s that little caveat at the end — Henry wants him dead — he’ll be convicted anyway. But, he got his words on the record. Which counts for a lot. And it’s a brilliant performance and a brilliant film. It’s really, really well done. Scofield is astounding. It’s the kind of performance that comes once in a lifetime.
What makes it so tough is that — I really can’t decide between Scofield and Burton. They were both pretty equal in my eyes. Ask me tomorrow, my opinion will change. Shit, ask me now, my opinion will change. I have no idea what to do. They were both amazing.
My Thoughts: The best two performances are Scofield and Burton. Caine would get more consideration in a weaker year. McQueen always gets consideration, but, this is his only nomination, and, really not strong enough for a win. So, it’s between those two, and, honestly, despite how amazing Paul Scofield is, I think I have to take Richard Burton. It hurts, having to select between these two, but, I have to do it.
My Vote: Scofield. (ooh, that band-aid didn’t come off easily at all.)
Should Have Won: Scofield, Burton.
Is the result acceptable?: Yes. Scofield and Burton were by far the two best performances of the year. Which is strange, since they’re the two that are clearly in the movies that are essentially plays on screen. But — the heart wants what it wants. They were the best, and either one would have been acceptable. The result is fine, though it does sting a bit more after the fact now that I know Richard Burton never did get the Oscar he so richly deserved, especially since this is the best performance he ever committed to celluloid. (With his one from the year before this a close second.)
Performances I suggest you see: Scofield, Burton (seriously, the’re incredible), McQueen (only if you want to see him act. This is NOT the same as his other movies). And Arkin, if you want to see what a comedy from the 60s looks like.