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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1965-1966)

The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.

I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.

This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.

1965

David Lean, Doctor Zhivago

John Schlesinger, Darling

Hiroshi Teshigahara, Woman in the Dunes

Robert Wise, The Sound of Music

William Wyler, The Collector

Analysis:

Doctor Zhivago. Everyone knows the title, but do people know the film?

The film spans a bunch of years, pre-World War I, the war, the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War. The framing device is Alec Guinness searching for the daughter of Zhivago, his brother. He meets a woman who may be her and tells her the story. We follow Zhivago and his love, Lara, through all these different world events.

The film is great. It’s really long, almost as long as Lawrence of Arabia, but is truly great. I consider Lean’s epic trilogy as such: The Bridge on the River Kwai approaches perfection, but doesn’t quite achieve it. But it is trending upward. Lawrence of Arabia is a perfect film, through and through. And then Zhivago goes just past the point of perfection, as if it’s trying to recreate it, and just feels like it’s doing too much.

The direction is amazing, and I could not fault anyone for voting for him. Lean was nominated for Best Director seven times, and I could count probably four to five times that he was actually worth a vote. Which is impressive. The category this year is really strong, and we’ll see if I end up voting for him.

Darling is a really terrific film that I think I actually voted for when I did this last time. I saw it again recently, so my memory of it is fresh.

Julie Christie is a model who is married to a guy but very quickly embarks on an affair with a TV producer. And they leave their spouses and move in together, and pretty much the rest of the film is her bouncing around from man to man, becoming more successful but also becoming less happy. It’s a pretty wonderful film, and Christie is incredible in it.

I remember being really taken by the direction the first time because it felt vibrant and of its era. Doctor Zhivago and Sound of Music felt like overdone Hollywood productions and I liked the freshness of Schlesinger’s work. Having seen it again — I could still vote for it, but I don’t see anything out of the direction that screams a vote. It’s a solid third, maybe second for me, but I don’t think I’d vote for it. It definitely is the direction with the most personality to it, that’s for sure.

Woman in the Dunes. What a beautiful film. It’s so trippy and surreal and absolutely visual of the bunch. I know people haven’t heard of this, so I’ll tell you what it is. It’s the token foreign nominee of the group.

A Japanese man is in a village to collect bugs. He misses the last bus, and is led to a place to stay by the villagers — a house in the dunes you can only get to by climbing down a ladder. A woman lives there alone. The next morning, he finds the ladder missing and is told by the villagers that he is to keep the house clear of sand with the woman. The house is such that if they do not clear out sand, the house will fill with it and they will suffocate. And by clearing out the sand, they also keep the dunes at bay from destroying the village. So they’ve trapped him down there to help the woman and also have children with her, so they can keep up the job once they are dead.

The movie is great. I had no idea what this was, and I’m glad they nominated it because it was probably the only thing that would have gotten me to see it. I may even vote for this, that’s how much I liked the direction.

The Sound of Music is one of the most iconic musicals ever made. The images and songs are of the most famous in all of cinema. Everyone knows the music.

The hills are alive. How do you solve a problem like Maria. These are a few of my favorite things. Do a deer, a female deer. Everyone knows this movie.

The iconic nature of the film and the images count for a lot. Plus, it’s the Sound of fucking Music. On title alone, you know it’s right there for a vote.

This is a rough category. They’re all right there for a vote.

The Collector. A great and tense thriller. Terrific, and definitely underrated film. The kind of film you’d only get in the 60s and 70s. The mentality and the pacing is something you only got during this era that we almost certainly will never get again. (Which sucks, when you consider what this film would look like if made today.)  1965 is a very underrated year. There’s a lot of good shit here.

Terence Stamp is a lonely man who stalks Samantha Eggar and eventually kidnaps her and hides her in a stone cellar in his house. He hopes that she will eventually fall for him if he keeps her there long enough and proves his devotion to her. And she wants nothing more than to escape. And the film is about that dynamic. She devises ways to get out and he tries to get her to fall for him. It’s great.

The direction is really solid, but easily fifth in the category. That’s pretty much the curse of William Wyler. Nominated all those times. It feels like he’s always either #1 or #5. But he’s always on the list. Which is what matters. That said – still #5 for me. Nothing against him or the film, it’s an insanely strong category. He falls to five when in most years, he might be a three.

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The Reconsideration: I had a real hard time here. Lean’s is the most epic, Scheslinger’s has the most personality, and Wise’s is the most iconic. And Teshigahara’s is the most visually intriguing and innovative. What do you do?

I gotta take Wyler off first, off the bat. The Collector is a great film, but I can’t think of a reason to vote for it over any of the other nominees. After that — fuck if I know.

Doctor Zhivago — pros: David Lean makes an epic movie. It’s big, it’s great. Cons: it feels a bit too long and overdone, and that is partly because of the direction. And while it’s not the main reason, the tiebreaker for me is — he’s won twice, for better efforts. I didn’t really want to vote for him, and that is really the final clincher.

Darling — I love how fresh it is as compared to the Hollywood stuff That said…there’s nothing here that makes me really want to vote for it over my other choices. I think I took Schlesinger last time because Lean had won, Wise had won, I really liked the film and it felt like a compromise choice (and also because I knew I wasn’t gonna vote for him the year he actually won). I’m not thinking like that this time, so here, he doesn’t really cut it for me.

So that leaves Teshigahara and Wise. Going against Teshigahara is my weird thing about foreign nominees — I don’t get what they nominate vs. what they don’t. I have a weird internal bias against voting for them. Though it is easier now, simply looking at what the best effort is rather than thinking about anything larger.

It’s tough because I think a film being iconic and memorable counts for a lot, but also appreciate a film that really uses the direction to its advantage. I think this comes down to a toss-up.

I’m going explain how I’m voting two-fold. One is a cop out, but that’s just my backup reasoning behind the actual reason. The cop out reason is — going into this vote, either if it were 1965 or today, it’s clear The Sound of Music is the one that’s going to win. So a vote against it doesn’t stop it, and since I think it is a worthy winner, that’s fine. And it allows me to talk up a nominee that I think is also worthy that’s not getting any notice. Maybe it gets more people to take a look at it. That’s the cop out reason. My other reason is — watching all the five contenders, Woman in the Dunes is actually the one that makes me feel like the direction is enhancing the overall product. Whereas with Sound of Music, it was already starting with a leg up with all the memorable songs.

So I’ll take Teshigahara here. Wise did a great job and his film holds up, but I really think the effort on Teshigahara’s part was best. And now hopefully this gets more people to see it, because it’s really fantastic.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Hiroshi Teshigahara, Woman in the Dunes
  2. Robert Wise, The Sound of Music
  3. David Lean, Doctor Zhivago
  4. John Schlesinger, Darling
  5. William Wyler, The Collector

Rankings (films):

  1. The Sound of Music
  2. Darling
  3. Doctor Zhivago
  4. The Collector
  5. Woman in the Dunes

My Vote: Hiroshi Teshigahara, Woman in the Dunes

Recommendations:

The Sound of Music is basically a life essential movie. You pretty much end up seeing it at some point. And if you’re into movies, this should be 1a essential for you if you haven’t.

Doctor Zhivago is a film that, based on title alone, you should realize is essential. You need to see it. Definitely a film you need to see in order to be a film buff.

The Collector is a movie that nobody remembers anymore, and when you see it, you’re gonna be blown away by how good it is. Trust me. One of the most underrated movies in Oscar history.

Woman in the Dunes is great. Absolutely wonderful. The story is simple, the direction is incredible, and even though you’ve never heard of this, I’ll wager that you’ll probably really like it. I love that they nominated it, because now I get to recommend it to people and have the “it was nominated for Best Director” qualifier to make people feel like that means something and they should see it. (I’ll take what I can get. But you should definitely see this.)

Darling is also really terrific. It won Julie Christie an Oscar and is a really strong film. Highly recommended.

The Last Word: It’s probably Wise, but I’m taking Teshigahara because I think his effort did the most for his film. You could honestly make a case for just about anyone in the category. Maybe not Wyler, but I guess you could. Lean is an easy choice, Wise is an easy choice, Schlesinger is definitely a choice, because I made it before. So you can go pretty much any way you want with this category, it’s crazy strong.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1966

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

Analysis:

Blowup. Antonioni. One of the most famous films of world cinema.

It’s a simple story. Ever see Blow Out with Travolta? This is that, but with images instead of sound. A photographer takes a photo and believes he saw a murder in it. And he becomes obsessed with finding out the truth. Simple as that.

It’s a great film. I imagine a lot of people would vote for this. I think it’s definitely worthwhile. And in a category like this, there’s not a lot that jumps out to me. So this is definitely right up there.

The Professionals. I’m curious why they nominated this. I like Richard Brooks and I like this movie, but it’s not the most iconic western ever made. There are definitely more famous (and even better shot) westerns that weren’t nominated here.

It’s a later western, which means the timeline is much later. This is a Mexican Revolution western. Meaning trains and automatic weapons are available. Think The Wild Bunch. Ralph Bellamy is a train magnate who hires Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Woody Strode and Robert Ryan (all veterans of the genre) to rescue his wife (Claudia Cardinale), who has been kidnapped by a Mexican bandit (Jack Palance).

The reason this is so memorable and probably why it got nominated is because of its point of view. It’s a very cynical western. When you get to the end, and find out what’s going on, you realize that a western like this could only be made during this era. I think the politics of the western are why it got so much Academy love. Because if there’s one thing we know about the western, it’s not what it’s about, it’s what it’s actually about.

This is a really good film, and the direction is strong. Still, probably at best a third choice in the category. One film is more iconic, and the other is just better. I might be able to make a case for one or both the other two films being higher than this. So, solid, but probably not worth a vote.

A Man and a Woman. Claude Lelouch. I’d call it our token foreign nominee, but we have two of them this year. This one is the one that’s not in English.

Anouk Aimee is a widow whose husband died in a stunt accident on a film set. She has a daughter. She meets Jean-Louis Trintignant, another widower, whose wife killed herself after he had a horrible crash at Le Mans. He has a son. They meet by chance one day and spend a long drive getting to know one another. And it’s about these two people finding one another.

It’s a simple story, but the direction is so good. Lelouch cuts back and forth between color and black-and-white and sepia tone, and all sorts of film stocks as well. It’s very memorable. I do like the film and I definitely appreciate the effort, but I definitely wouldn’t vote for it. I’m not so cynical as to say the different stocks and colors are a gimmick, but I will say I’m not just gonna vote for it because he does those things. I think it’s definitely worth a vote if you want to go that way, but I think at least two of the efforts are overall stronger choices.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. You’ve probably heard of the title. It’s based on a play, and it’s basically a play. Yet, it’s shot the way A Streetcar Named Desire is shot, possibly even better. The direction becomes part of the film.

It’s about Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, a married couple who hate each other, and love each other. He’s a professor, and she’s the daughter of the university president. They’re coming back from a night out at a faculty soiree, and have invited another professor and his wife over for a drink. We see pretty quickly how vicious they could be toward one another. And we watch as the other couple comes over and becomes part of their twisted games and rocky marriage for the next few hours. It is great. Burton and Taylor are absolutely superb.

This is my favorite film in the category. I’m biased toward wanting to vote for it. It’s definitely stagy, but I loved how he used direction to enhance the drama. It feels intimate and never overdone. This will probably be my vote, and there’s probably a bit of my love for the film spilling over into this category, which I am fully willing to admit.

A Man for All Seasons. Another period costume drama. Perhaps the best of them, though I’m sure we’re all partial to one over the others.

This one is about Sir Thomas More, who opposed Henry VIII’s attempt to get an annulment of his marriage to his wife because she wouldn’t bear him a son. It’s a direct precursor to Anne of the Thousand Days. This, though, is about More’s refusal to grant the annulment as it goes directly against the word of God. And Henry imprisons him and threatens to have him killed if he won’t grant it. It’s a great film about a man who sticks to his principles. Scofield is outstanding, and so is Robert Shaw as Henry.

If you thought Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is stagy, it has nothing on this film. This movie is basically a play on screen. At best it’s probably the fourth best effort in the category, if not fifth overall. I think I probably have it fifth. The only reason it won is because the film won Best Picture. When I see this movie, I see a play. Which has nothing to do with the movie itself, but if we’re voting for best directorial effort, I can’t in good conscience call this that.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Zinnemann is out right off the top. (And he won the category. Go figure.) Brooks doesn’t hold much weight for me either. I’m pretty sure those are the two most people would take off immediately (though maybe some people would vote for Zinnemann?). Lelouch… I can understand someone voting for him, but I can’t. I don’t see enough there to put him over the other two.

For me, it’s either Nichols or Antonioni. And while I love Blowup, I love Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf more. So Mike Nichols is my vote. Probably not the consensus choice, but that’s my choice.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Mike Nichols, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  2. Michelangelo Antonioni, Blowup
  3. Claude Lelouch, A Man and a Woman
  4. Richard Brooks, The Professionals
  5. Fred Zinnemann, A Man for All Seasons

Rankings (films):

  1. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  2. A Man for All Seasons
  3. Blowup
  4. The Professionals
  5. A Man and a Woman

My Vote: Mike Nichols, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Recommendations:

Blowup is an essential film for film buffs. One of the foreign films you must see.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Man for All Seasons are also essential movies. One because it’s a great Best Picture winner with fantastic performances that represents a particular genre at its best, and the other because it features two of the biggest stars of all time (and one of the most famous couples of all time) at their absolute best. They’re not top tier essential, but you should get to them eventually if you love movies.

The Professionals is a great western, and while it’s not essential, if you love westerns, you’ll enjoy it. And also — Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Jack Palance, Woody Strode, Robert Ryan, Ralph Bellamy. If that means anything to you, you should probably see this movie. That’s an all star cast by any means, western or no western.

A Man and a Woman is a really terrific movie that uses a lot of great techniques and also is a really great romantic comedy to boot. Highly recommended. Some might consider it essential. I don’t. But I think it’s worth seeing.

The Last Word: You may be able to make a case for all five of thees nominees. To me, Zinnemann is the clear weakest of the bunch, even though his film may be the strongest of the bunch. I understand him winning, but don’t see someone calling him the strongest effort without taking into account the overall quality of the film. I know that also speaks to a director’s effort, but let’s not pretend like the writing and the acting isn’t carrying almost all of the weight there.

Brooks is solid, and I guess you could make a case for him, but I can’t imagine a lot of people would make that case. I feel like he’d probably be the fifth most voted for effort when given a large enough sample size. Lelouch is definitely worth a vote too, and I could definitely understand that. And Antonioni, I imagine, would be most people’s choice. Then Nichols, I love the effort and love the film. He was probably second choice here in 1966, not that it means anything. I’d vote for him, and I imagine a fair number of people would too. It’s a fairly wide open category, without a clear cut #1. You could go a number of different ways here, and they’re all valid, presuming you could make a coherent case for them.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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