The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1966
I like me some 1966. I don’t love it. But I like it. It’s a good year. Not terribly memorable, but a year begins with its Best Picture nominees/winner. And this year’s winner (along with the only other potential winner) is a very stagy film. Amazing, but stagy. Which isn’t as sexy as some of the other winners. But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a good film.
A Man for All Seasons, outside of Best Picture, wins Fred Zinnemann his second Best Director Oscar (talked about here), which, with this, High Noon and From Here to Eternity (not to mention all the other great films he directed), he’s earned two, and Best Actor for Paul Scofield (talked about here). He did do a great job, and it was really close between him and Richard Burton. Both were very deserving. He was incredible. Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress were Elizabeth Taylor (talked about here) and Sandy Dennis (talked about here) for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, both of whom I felt were deserving in their respective categories (Taylor much more so. She just destroyed the rest of that category). And Best Supporting Actor was Walter Matthau for The Fortune Cookie (talked about here), which — oh man, watch this movie and that performance. It’s genius. It’s a comic role that he plays like a noir. It’s glorious.
So that’s 1966. A very strong year. Every category went with either the best decision or one of the top two. But it’s not very sexy. Some sexiness, but more-so very solid. Maybe we’ll call this the “good husband” year.
BEST PICTURE – 1966
And the nominees were…
A Man for All Seasons (Columbia)
The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming (United Artists)
The Sand Pebbles (20th Century Fox)
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Warner Bros.)
Alfie — Oh, Alfie. What a film. I like to tell people this when I talk about this film — you know how Ferris Bueller talks to the camera? Yeah — this film did it first.
Michael Caine is Alfie, a limo driver and womanizing cad. He’s sleeping with multiple women at once, and is serious about none of them. And the film basically shows him going about his ways, explaining his philosophy to the audience (to give you a hint, he doesn’t refer to women as “she,” but rather as “it”) as he goes along. But then he has a health scare and begins to think about his priorities. He has a nervous breakdown worried about the results of some tests, and then in the hospital, meets the wife of a man who is clearly not fulfilling her needs. And he has an affair with her, which leads to her getting pregnant and having to get an abortion. And we also see him be cheated on by a woman he actually kind of liked. It’s a great film. Don’t bother with the remake. That’s not good. This one is very good.
I’m kind of surprised this got here, but I’m glad it did. It’s very 60s, and is anticipating the films that will come about the year after this. So I like it as a nominee. Wouldn’t vote for it, but I like it here.
A Man for All Seasons — Perhaps the pinnacle of the costume dramas of the 60s. This one is about Sir Thomas More and his decision to not grant Henry VIII the divorce he wanted. The film shows More’s dilemma — attempting to do what his king wants, but also knowing that doing so will go against God. And finally he decides to not grant the divorce, and Henry then pressures him by keeping him locked in prison, and More sticking to his guns, even when he goes to trial (which, when they’re ordered by the king, only will have one verdict). The trial in this film is the best part — More’s testimony is one of the greatest scenes ever written. He knows what will happen — he knows that if he does not waver (not to mention, he, much like Atticus Finch, puts forth a clear and lucid argument, basically proving his innocence, even though everyone and himself knows it won’t matter), history will speak greater volumes than the outcome of the trial.
This is a great, great film, and I am not kidding when I say it’s one of the best written films ever. It’s not a sexy choice for Best Picture, but being that both major choices this year were basically theatricals — it’s not so bad. The quality of the film speaks for itself.
The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming — I’m actually kind of shocked this got nominated. It’s a comedy. I guess because of the whole Cold War thing, they felt it was satire or something. Or maybe it was a big “fuck you” to Dr. Strangelove. Like, “No, this is what we old white men of the Academy think is a proper Cold War comedy!” Yeah, tell me how that one turned out.
The film is pretty great though. It’s about a Russian submarine washing ashore on Cape Cod and the Russians having to go and sneak into town to get it fixed without being seen. Because they don’t want to fight anyone. They just want to do their job and be done with it. So, in coming ashore, they run into Carl Reiner, who is on vacation with his family, and basically take him hostage and force him to help them get the parts to fix the sub. And then the town starts hearing about it, and it becomes a huge thing (it’s kind of like 1941 without all the unnecessary action), with a lot of slapstick comedy and stuff. And eventually the Russians and the Americans have to work together, because a real Russian sub comes and threatens to start killing everyone. And while this huge Mexican standoff is taking place, a child, who was watching from a roof, slips and falls and is hanging from his overalls from the gutter. And everyone has to band together to build a human pyramid to bring the kid to safety. And then the Russians leave without incident and everyone goes back to normal, covering up the whole thing to the government.
It’s a really funny movie. It really is. A great comedy. Alan Arkin is amazing. Doesn’t speak a word of English in the film. Speaks entirely in Russian. As for it being here, though — I don’t understand it. It really shouldn’t be nominated for Best Picture. I mean, it’s nice, and it’s a fun choice, but it would never win. Ever. But it is a great film. So I like that aspect of it. And the year was pretty weak for Oscar films, so I guess it’s not that bad a nominee. It’s not like it not being here could have made it stronger. Still, it was never going to win, so it doesn’t matter.
The Sand Pebbles — This is a tough film to explain. It doesn’t sound particularly appealing when you talk about it. But it’s a very good film. It drags a bit at times, but on the whole it’s very good.
It’s about a Navy machinist (Steve McQueen) in China. And once aboard the ship, he immediately starts ignoring protocol, as the ship has Chinese laborers doing the hard labor for the machinists and the machinists overseeing. But he likes to work on things himself, so he ignores what’s “supposed” to happen. And he becomes hated by the crew. And the ship’s captain starts ignoring his requests to fix faulty machines, even when it’s clear there’s something wrong. It’s like in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, after Smith is disgraced in front of the Senate and tries to get a motion introduced, and no one will let him speak. It’s kind of like that. And McQueen is made to train a new laborer, which he does (that’s Mako). And he becomes friends with the guy, to the point where he trains him to fight when a sailor picks on him (a fight that he wins, too).
Then the film shifts a bit toward the situation in China, as the Chinese continue to antagonize the Americans in order to create an international incident. There’s a subplot in the film where Richard Attenborough (McQueen’s only friend on the ship) falls in love with a Chinese woman, whom he saved from prostitution by paying off her debts. And he sneaks off the ship to meet with her, wanting to run away with her. But one night he catches pneumonia and dies. And the Chinese kill the girl and claim McQueen (who came to find Attenborough dead) killed her. So they lay siege to the ship and demand McQueen be given to them. Shit like that. Eventually, the captain decides to go find a missionary and rescue him. And when they get there, the missionary says he has renounced his American citizenship and was really only under danger because of the captain. And the captain demands the missionary be taken back on the ship, which leads to a big battle in which McQueen is killed.
It’s a long film, and it does drag at times, but on the whole, it is really strong and worth seeing. In terms of this category, I feel like it’s only here because it should have been. Robert Wise had wanted to make this film for a while, and only got to make it after The Sound of Music proved to be a huge hit. And they spent a lot of money, and it was about a big topic (China), and it had all the earmarks of an Oscar nominee. It’s not quite there in terms of execution, but it makes sense. This wouldn’t be here a year later, though. As it is, it’s only like a #4 choice.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — This, to me, is a perfect film. Despite being essentially a play. The performances are just so good that it feels cinematic.
The film is about a college professor and his wife, played by real life husband and wife Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who do nothing but argue. We follow them over the course of an evening as they leave a campus soiree and come back to their house, where they’ve invited a younger professor and his wife (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) over for drinks. And we just follow the four of them over the course of this evening. That’s all you need to know, just see it if you haven’t. It is a perfect movie. Seriously.
I think this is the best film on this list and should have won. That’s just how I feel. Though, since A Man for All Seasons is just as good, that also was a good choice. So, really, we had the luxury of knowing a good film was going to win here. I, personally, choose this one.
My Thoughts: The two best films here are A Man for All Seasons and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Both are worthy of the win. Man for All Seasons is the more classical choice. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is my favorite film on this list. So I go with that. Really, either one, though.
My Vote: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Should Have Won: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Man for All Seasons
Is the result acceptable?: Yup. Great film. Great choice for a category like this. It was one or the other. This is a much more classical choice.
Ones I suggest you see: You need to see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Man for All Seasons. If you don’t, you don’t really love movies, and you’re doing it wrong.
Alfie is an amazing, amazing film. It’s not essential, in that primal sense, but you should definitely see this movie. It’s so good. There are films you need to see before this, but at some point, if you do really care about movies, you do need to see this one. Forget the remake. See this one.
You should totally check out The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming. It’s a great 60s comedy. Very funny movie. Definitely recommended.
The Sand Pebbles is a very good film. Not for everyone. But very strong, well-done, great performances by Steve McQueen and especially Richard Attenborough. Recommended. Check this one out. Plus it’s got a lot of major nominations. Another recommended film.
5) The Sand Pebbles
4) The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming
2) A Man for All Seasons
1) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?