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The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1966

I like 1966 a lot. Best part about it? The recap takes about fifteen seconds.

A Man for all Seasons and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? win five of the six major awards. Both are amazing films, and really, either one winning all the awards would have been acceptable. A Man for All Seasons won Best Picture, Best Actor for Paul Scofield (talked about here), and, this category. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won Best Actress for Elizabeth Taylor (talked about here) and Best Supporting Actress for Sandy Dennis. The only award those films didn’t win was Best Supporting Actor, which went to Walter Matthau for The Fortune Cookie (talked about here). See? Real quick. Love it.

And then, there’s this category, which is just all sorts of fucked up. I don’t quite know what to do here, because there are so many minefields to deal with. So I guess we’ll find out what I’m going to do together.

BEST DIRECTOR – 1966

And the nominees were…

Michelangelo Antonioni, Blowup

Richard Brooks, The Professionals

Claude Lelouch, A Man and a Woman

Mike Nichols, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Fred Zinnemann, A Man for All Seasons

Antonioni — Blowup is one of those films that — when people list the top ten or fifteen foreign films ever made, it’s usually on the list. It’s also a film that I hadn’t seen until way late on the Oscar Quest. I’d already moved out to Los Angeles by the time I saw it, which puts it in the last 100 or so films. I feel that’s worth mentioning.

The film is about a fashion photographer. We spend a day in his life. First we see him going around, having fashion shoots with hot models, has sex with young, aspiring models, goes to the park and takes pictures of random lovers, etc. The whole thing unfolds very mundanely. But then, when he gets back to his studio, he finds the woman he took pictures of with her lover has followed him back. She asks for the pictures, and he refuses, because he doesn’t understand why she wants them so badly. So he goes and blows up the film, and notices (or so he thinks) a guy in the trees with a gun. So he goes to the park at night and sees a body. He then hears someone and is scared away. He goes back to his studio and finds that all of his negatives and prints are gone, except the one big blowup of the body. He then goes back to the park in the morning, but the body is gone. Then, not knowing what to make of it, he goes and watches two mimes play an imaginary tennis match. He gets so into it that he even throws the ball back to them. Then, as he sits on the grass, he fades away, and the film ends.

It’s a very, very, very interesting film. I don’t know if I’d call it the masterpiece that some (or most) people do, but I do think it’s a great film and a classic film. Let’s just not start making it an objectively-stated masterpiece like we do Citizen Kane. That’s my thought. But, that’s just me. I do recognize that this is a great film, and I really, really enjoyed watching it. I’m just of the opinion — let’s think for a second before we start putting it above certain other films just because it’s deliberately mundane. (I also love that other famous foreign filmmakers are really quick to shit all over Antonioni. Specifically Truffaut and Bergman. They really don’t like this guy.)

Anyway, the effort here is great, and, in this category, where the two major choices are very theatrical, this is clearly the most cinematic of the bunch. The only thing holding me back from voting for him is the foreign film thing. It’s not that I have anything against foreign films and directors winning major Oscars, it’s just — the Academy has established certain truths and certain standards that I feel, in all fairness, I need to take into account. That being said — if Federico Fellini is not going to win Best Director for 8 1/2 in a year where fucking Tom Jones wins Best Director — can I really vote for this film here? The answer is actually — maybe. I’m seriously considering it. We’ll see what happens.

Brooks — The Professionals is a film I did not expect to see nominated for Best Director. I’d seen the film literally less than a month before starting the Oscar Quest. I was on a huge westerns kick, because my final film paper for my senior seminar was about if Martin Scorsese wrote a western, so we had like ten or fifteen western films to check out (most of which I’d seen before, but watched again anyway, because who needs an excuse to watch The Searchers, My Darling Clementine, etc). And in watching all those films I got in the mood to watch westerns. So I look through my long ass Netflix Queue (which, I’ll tell you, has been at 500 movies since I got it back in 2006. Once, I think I got it down to 420 or so, but that didn’t last long. Right now it’s at 495, and the Instant Queue is at 456 (and none of those films overlap. It’s almost 1,000 separate films)), and looked through to see which westerns they thought I’d rate the highest. And The Professionals  was one of them. So I looked at it and was like, “Burt Lancaster? Lee Marvin? Done!” Right to the top of the queue.

Then I watched it — it’s got Claudia Cardinale (which, how gorgeous is she?), Robert Ryan, the great Woody Strode — Ralph Bellamy! They have Ralph Bellamy! — Jack Palance — there was no reason for me not to see this film yesterday. You know what I mean?

This is a Mexican Revolution western film, which is pretty typical of some of the later ones. It’s about Ralph Bellamy, a rancher, who hires four men to rescue his kidnapped wife (Claudia Cardinale) from Jack Palance (a bandit. Naturally). The four men are Lee Marvin (weapons), Burt Lancaster (explosives), Robert Ryan (wrangler) and Woody Stode (Apache scout and straight Legolas with a bow and arrow). Fucking badass, right?

Now, Lancaster and Marvin — they know Palance. They have respect for him because they both fought with him under Pancho Villa (this is a very pro-Mexico film. Kind of the way most western heroes fought for the South in the Civil War. It’s character-building. Ain’t that right, Ethan Edwards?). So they go down there and stake out the camp. They go in at night and are gonna kill Palance, but Claudia Cardinale stops them. The thing is — she wasn’t kidnapped at all. She willingly left with Palance (probably because Bellamy is really old). But, they were paid to bring her back, so that’s what they do. But now Palance is after her, because he loves her. So they escape, and use their skills to keep Palance and his bandits at bay.

They get back to Bellamy, only to find out — he bought her as a trophy wife, and she wanted nothing to do with him, so she ran back to Palance. And Bellamy pays the men, tells them they did their job, then tells one of his men to kill Palance. And Lancaster is like, “Nuh uh, pal. You don’t have the right to kill this dude.” And the four of them step in to make sure Palance isn’t killed. Because — only a gunfighter can kill a gunfighter. Like fucking bushido. And they all go away back to Mexico. It’s an awesome film. Seriously, if you love westerns, you’re gonna love this one. It’s amazing.

But, like I said — I was fucking shocked that it got nominated here. Don’t get me wrong, I love that it got nominated, but, I’m shocked. How many westerns have been nominated for Best Director? Four? Five? (I don’t know, I don’t want to take the three minutes and check.) But it’s not many. And while I love that Brooks (who is a great director in his own right. Dude made Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Blackboard Jungle, Elmer Gantry, and In Cold Blood the year after this, for which was very rightfully also nominated for Best Director for) was nominated here — I don’t know if I can vote for him. I don’t know why, since the western is my favorite genre and simply voting for him would greatly alleviate my dilemma here — I don’t know. I don’t know if I can vote for it. It just feels weird. I can’t explain it. Maybe it’s a John Ford thing. Like, if he didn’t win for a western, why vote for someone else (not named Clint Eastwood)? I don’t know — we’ll see.

Lelouch — Yeah, this is clearly a #5 here. I don’t understand this one at all.

A Man and a Woman is a French film, and one that I remember distinctly for having lots of ellipses and dream-like shots. That’s what I took out of this film. It’s about a man and a woman (fucking really?) who are both widowers. Her husband died in a car accident (he was a stunt man), and he’s a race car driver, and one day when he got in a really bad crash, his wife, thinking he was dead, killed herself. So they meet at their children’s school and start a romance. And they like each other, but the romance stalls because she’s overly paranoid about getting with another man, especially with all this guilt about her dead husband. Plus, this dude also has the potential to die the same way her husband did — she has concerns. And the movie is basically them meeting, dating, sleeping together, her having anxiety, leaving him, then him going to meet her, because he loves her, and her being like, “Oh, you really love me. Well, I guess it’s okay then.”

Don’t you love my recaps?

I actually liked the film. I thought it was a nice, low-key romance. I think the expectations of Oscar nominations diminish its impact for me (but that’s the pitfall of an Oscar Quest. For someone like you, who isn’t (probably) on a similar Quest, you can watch most of these films as films and maybe like them even more. And that’s why I love this. I’m engendering (hopefully) objective views of films, and maybe people will find films they really love, which is really what I want most), but I still think this was a good film. I wouldn’t vote for it here at all, though. I had the same reaction to this as I have to a lot of those French New Wave films (not all of them, don’t get nervous), which is — I was watching and was like, “This  is one of those things people think is a masterpiece because they just fuck with the techniques a little bit.” I may have been a bit more straightforward than that, but, either way, I did not consider the effort enough to warrant a vote here. Not with the rest of these nominees. Not at all.

Nichols — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a masterpiece of cinema. There’s no disputing that. It’s chances in this category, however, are well up for debate.

The film is about a professor and his wife who drink and fight all the time. And they come home from a party and invite another couple over (another professor and his wife). And the four of them have drinks, and the younger couple is basically thrust into the war zone between the older couple. And it’s awesome. All four actors are amazing in the film, especially Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It’s seriously a perfect film. Everyone should see it.

Now — as for it’s directorial effort — it’s a play on film. It’s not hiding that fact. Nichols shoots it from interesting angles and makes it more dynamic, but it’s still essentially a play on film. So one has to take that into account when figuring out what to vote for. Which I intend to do.

Zinnemann — A Man for All Seasons is another perfect film, just like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. And, just like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, suffers from the same problem when it comes to voting for this category.

The film is about Sir Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII, who refuses to grant Henry the divorce he wants. This is a very famous event in history, and is told from Henry’s perspective in Anne of the Thousand Days. Both films are amazing and should be seen. In wonder what a double bill of those would be like. (Similarly, if you’re doing double bills, Becket and The Lion in Winter are good ones to do as a double feature as well, because the link there is that they’re about the same character at different periods of his life. Both starring Peter O’Toole. They’re all really great films, the lot of them.)

But, it’s about Thomas More not allowing Henry to get the divorce because it goes against God’s law. He tries to find a loophole, because he likes Henry, but his position as a Christian prevents him from allowing the divorce to go through. So Henry has him imprisoned put on trial (which, yeah — that’s fair), and eventually killed. And the great thing about the film is how More stands up for his beliefs. Even at the trial, you know — this dude is fucked. And yet, like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, he pretty much manages to convince everyone that what the eventual verdict is going to be will be wrong. And that’s the best thing that could have come from such a situation. It’s so amazing. It’s so well-written.

Thing is, though, like I said, it suffers from the problem of essentially being a play on film. Sure, they have moments where people get in boats and are not sitting in a room, talking to one another, but it’s essentially a play on film. So that must be taken into consideration.

My Thoughts: Okay. Here’s the deal on this one. First, we throw out Lelouch. I don’t have time to waste — important decisions must be made.

This category has potholes. Or pitfalls. Either way. First there’s the distinction of cinematic vs. theatrical. Blowup and The Professionals are clearly the two more cinematic of the four choices. While Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Man for All Seasons are the more theatrical of the two. Normally I’d go for cinematic over theatrical every time, but, here, I have to take film quality and how much I like the films into account as well. Because, a film could be theatrical as all hell, but if it’s the best film, it’s the best film.

Now, between the two “cinematic” films, I’d vote for Blowup over The Professionals, plus, as I said earlier, I just feel weird voting for The Professionals, so that’s my finalist there. And then, on the theatrical side — and this may be convoluted logic, but, I’m human, this is how we operate — I like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? more than A Man for All Seasons, plus Fred Zinnemann won an Oscar already, and Mike Nichols is Mike Nichols, and if he’d have won here, Arthur Penn could have won the year after this for Bonnie and Clyde. (Not that The Graduate was a bad choice, it’s just — it’s Bonnie and Clyde.) So, I take Nichols from that side.

So it’s between Nichols and Antonioni. And, honestly, I know that Antonioni was never going to win, plus, I’m operating under the logic that if 8 1/2 didn’t win Best Director, why should a film that’s not as good as 8 1/2 win Best Director (because, it’s a foreign film. These are predominantly American film awards. The Academy has established that only rare exceptions for foreign films will be made. How they mediate that, I have no fucking idea. But, I use the 8 1/2 thing as my guideline for this one)? So, really, I’m taking Nichols. That was all just build up to that. The logic is convoluted, but I’m operating under the “if he wins here, the best effort could win the year after this and then everybody wins” scenario.

My Vote: Nichols

Should Have Won: Nichols, Antonioni

Is the result acceptable?: Yes. Why? Because Fred Zinnemann should have won two Best Director Oscars. He should have won for High Noon in 1952 and didn’t. And he should have won in 1953 for From Here to Eternity, whether that was a makeup Oscar or not. He should have won. So that’s two. He only had one. So, if they were voting for A Man for All Seasons for Best Picture, then yes, him winning is totally acceptable and is a good decision. Mike Nichols got his Oscar, and everything worked out. (And Richard Brooks won an Oscar for screenwriting, so he got something too.)

Ones I suggest you see: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an American classic. You need to see it. It’s brilliant in every way. If you’re serious about movies, you just need to see it. That’s all there is to it.

A Man for All Seasons is also a classic. Maybe not essential in the canon of films you need to see, but it’s damn close. It’s a Best Picture winner, and I personally vouch for this as a great, great film. I mean, it’s really great. What more of a reason do you need?

The Professionals is a great western. If you love westerns, you have no reason not to see this. Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Claudia Cardinale, Ralph Bellamy, Jack Palance, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode — seriously why wouldn’t you see this? It’s awesome.

Blowup is also a great films and one of those you need to see as a film student. If you want to study film, this is on the list of top 50 films you need to see. If you just like movies and want to watch them, you don’t need to see this (at least not immediately), but, it helps. But, if you’re a film person, this is a major, major film. Like The 400 Blows, Breathless, The Battleship Potemkin, The Rules of the Game, 8 1/2, Seven Samurai, Tokyo Story, Bicycle Thieves, Rashomon, L’Atalante, Grand Illusion, La Dolce Vita — I think you understand.

Rankings:

5) Lelouch

4) Antonioni

3) Brooks

2) Zinnemann

1) Nichols

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