These were years of change for the Academy, just as they were for the U.S. in general. In 1966 the Motion Picture Association of America began work on a standardized ratings system, which would go into effect in late 1968 and which with some modifications remains in effect today. Like the MPAA, the Academy also grappled with the increasing presence in film of subjects that under the Hays Code would not have been permitted—foul language, nudity, graphic violence, discussions and depictions of sex and other subjects that would previously have been taboo. The controversy over just how much recognition films that dealt with such subjects should receive from the Academy, reflected in the Oscar nominations and awards, was as much a symptom of the schism between between the old America and the new America as it was between the old Hollywood and the new Hollywood.
During those years daring pictures like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that appealed to younger audiences gradually began to receive nearly as much recognition from the Academy—at least in nominations, if not in wins—as more traditional pictures like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? and Oliver! By 1969 the controversy was pretty much over, with Midnight Cowboy becoming the first—and so far only—X-rated movie to be named best picture of the year by the Academy. (In 1971 its rating was revised to R.) Still, on the whole the awards as always continued to be conservative, tending towards uncontroversial choices that presented to the world the image Hollywood felt reflected well on it, and favoring well-established actors over newcomers.
The Winner: A Man for All Seasons
My Pick: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The Winner: Fred Zinnemann, A Man for All Seasons
My Pick: Mike Nichols, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The Winner: Paul Scofield, A Man for All Seasons
My Pick: Paul Scofield, A Man for All Seasons
The Winner: Elizabeth Taylor, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
My Pick: Elizabeth Taylor, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
The Winner: Walter Matthau, The Fortune Cookie
My Pick: Walter Matthau, The Fortune Cookie
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
The Winner: Sandy Dennis, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
My Pick: Vivien Merchant, Alfie
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
The Winner: A Man and a Woman (France)
My Pick: The Battle of Algiers (Italy)
This was not a particularly strong year for American film, with the field of nominees in many categories containing a higher-than-usual proportion of British and even foreign language films. Two of the films nominated for best picture stood out from the rest—A Man for All Seasons and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? both adapted from stage plays and both anchored by superb direction and performances. The Academy went with the safer choice, A Man for All Seasons, an excellent film, but in the end I chose Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It could so easily have been a disaster, with its superstar leads and unproven director. But somehow all the elements came together to produce a spectacular film that was alternately side-splittingly funny and emotionally shattering. It's one of the most memorable translations of a great play into a great movie I've seen, right alongside Elia Kazan's film of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire and Sidney Lumet's 1962 version of Eugene O'Neil's Long Day's Journey into Night.
I also went with Mike Nichols as best director. A veteran of improv best known for his comedy records and Broadway show with his writing and performing partner Elaine May, Nichols had actually been a successful stage director of comedy for several years and had even won a Tony for his direction of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple. This background in comedy might make him seem a strange person to direct the film version of Virgina Woolf, but in the end he was an inspired choice, with his ability to bring out the underlying black humor of the play.
Best actor was the most difficult choice. Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons and Richard Burton in Virginia Woolf were both brilliant. A third Brit, Michael Caine, found a star-making part in the title role in Alfie, a character he inhabited so thoroughly that he seemed to be playing himself (a notion his subsequent career put to rest). In the end I went with Scofield by a whisker. Two more Brits were also nominated for best actress—the Redgrave sisters, Lynn for Georgy Girl and Vanessa for Morgan! I would have been satisfied with either of these as the winner, but Elizabeth Taylor's transformation in Virginia Woolf into a domineering, foul-mouthed frump was more than just a stunt. It was an utterly convincing revelation that when motivated, she could act up a storm. Her Martha was alternately scary and funny, shrewish and pathetic, just the kind of big performance Oscar loves to honor.
Walter Matthau, to me clearly the star of The Fortune Cookie, was nominated as best supporting actor, not best actor, to increase his chances of a win and maybe to leave open the possibility of his costar Jack Lemmon being nominated for best actor. (He wasn't.) This is a trend that has since become a regular occurrence (think of Jake Gyllenhall's nomination as best supporting actor for Brokeback Mountain or Cate Blanchett's as best supporting actress for Notes on a Scandal), so I don't see any point in resisting the fiction that this was a supporting performance. As such, the size of the role gave Matthau an edge over his closest competition, Robert Shaw as Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons. As for best supporting actress, I find Sandy Dennis to be the weak link in Virginia Woolf, and her histrionic performance soon grows tiresome for me. I much prefer Vivien Merchant's sensitive turn as a woman seduced and ill-treated by Michael Caine in Alfie. For best foreign language film, the Academy went with the picturesque fluff of A Man and a Woman. Instead I chose the persuasive polemics of The Battle of Algiers, which seemed in some ways to hark back to the heyday of Italian neorealism. Biggest omission: It's hard to find one in this weak film year, but the best is probably Rock Hudson, best actor, so restrained and sincere in Seconds.
TO BE CONTINUED