January 14, 2013

12 My Oscar Picks: 1966

With the Academy Award nominations for 2012 announced last week, it seems a good time to resume my look back at Oscar races of the past. This is something I've been doing this time of year for a few years now, comparing the winners with my own picks from among the nominees. The last time I wrote on this subject a couple of years ago, I made it up to the year 1965. (To see my previous posts on this subject, click here.) Over the next few weeks I'll be discussing the Oscars for 1966-70, beginning today with 1966. I'll also reveal what I thought was the most notable oversight in the nominations for each year.

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?

The Winner: Walter Matthau, The Fortune Cookie
My Pick: Walter Matthau, The Fortune Cookie

The Winner: Sandy Dennis, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
My Pick: Vivien Merchant, Alfie

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.



  1. R.D.,

    I agree with you except I would go with Richard Burton. Sandy Dennis, I suppose was a very good actress, but for some reason I cannot take to her and find her very annoying. She grates on you. Burton was superb, as was Scofield. The toughest to decide.

    1. John, this is a year that a tie between Scofield and Burton would have been justified. Scofield didn't make many films and was known mostly as a stage actor. I had the privilege of seeing him play Capt. Shotover in Shaw's "Heartbreak House" a number of years ago, and he was superb. He was greatly admired by other actors, and Burton, who started as a stage actor and had much experience in the theater, said at the time that Scofield was the one actor he wouldn't mind losing the Oscar to because he admired him so much. Burton's career later fizzled out--too much booze and high living, I guess--but when he made "Virginia Woolf" he was at the top of his game. It's a shame that despite his several nominations the time was never right for him to collect an Oscar.

  2. R.D., I love 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' but don't remember 'A Man for All Seasons' very well though I believe I've seen it more than once. It's a pity that Burton's career fizzled out, as you say - he was such a fine actor and had one of the great speaking voices. Must admit my knowledge of 1960s films is not very good, but I will be interested to read your choices and hopefully catch up with some of the films in future.

    1. Judy, the choice between Burton and Scofield this year was one of the two toughest ever for the years I've covered in this series so far (1934-66). The other was between Katharine Hepburn for "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and Anne Bancroft for "The Miracle Worker" in 1962. I think "Virgina Woolf" was the finest performance of Burton's film career.

  3. RD - My picks for '66 (admitting that it's been a while since I've seen some of these films): Picture: "Alfie," Director: Antonioni, Actor: Burton, Supporting Actress: Merchant, Supporting Actor: Matthau. I couldn't pick among the actresses - for some reason I'm no longer that taken with Elizabeth Taylor as Martha.

    1. Eve, some interesting choices, especially for best picture and director. "Blow-Up" was actually the first Antonioni film I ever saw, and I still like it. But since seeing his earlier Italian films, I've come to wonder about the appropriateness of applying his "existential void" outlook to Mod London. It just seems too vibrant to me for this view!

  4. Fantastic round-up R.D. Well, 1966's greatest film is Bresson's AU HASARD BALTHAZAR for me, but I fully understand you are taking a pointed look here at the Oscar races, not the overall scope of the year's most noteworthy achievements in world cinema. Your own choice of THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS, a staggering masterpiece cannot be questioned either. It's a very close call between Scofield and Burton, and it depends on what day of the week I decide to choose either. The first choice is actually Per Oscarsson for HUNGER, and as I recall R.D., you are also of that persuasion. Ditto for the Best Actress of that year for Harriet Andersson for PERSONA. But I know I losing the focus of this post now.

    I am with you a good part of the way here R.D.:

    Best Picture: A Man for All Seasons
    Best Director: Fred Zinnemann
    Best Actor: Paul Scofield
    Best Actress: Elizabeth Taylor
    Best Supporting Actor: Robert Shaw
    Best Supporting Actress: Vivien Merchant
    Best Foreign Film: The Battle of Algiers

    Wonderful writing and cogent analysis throughout every category, and I'd just like to add that I also adored Vanessa Redgrave's work in MORGAN! and Lynn Redgrave's in GEORGY GIRL.

    Look forward to your next year in focus!

    1. Sam, yes I was choosing only from among the actual nominees. I tried to provide a link to the AMPAS database so readers could check out all the nominees, but this didn't work. I'll be continuing this series for a couple more weeks and will include a link that readers can use to search the database for nominees.

      The Redgrave sisters burst on the film scene nearly simultaneously. Lynn ended up tying with Liz for the NY Film Critics award. I've had a soft spot for Vanessa Redgrave ever since seeing her in Morgan! so I guess you could call her my sentimental favorite for this year.

      For me the foreign language film award is always the most problematic. That's because of the process by which the nominees are selected, with countries submitting their own candidates for nomination. This seems to lead to submitting pictures more for their chances of winning rather than for their quality--like France submitting "A Man and a Woman" rather than one of the films by Melville, Godard, or Resnais released the same year.

  5. I agree with "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," a film that continues to improve with each viewing, and Taylor was at her best in the movie. I am also a fan of "Alfie" and would have liked it to win a few awards here and there, but I think your selections are well thought-out.

    1. Filmboy, the first time I saw "Virgina Woolf" I was just amazed. This was on the big screen, where you can feel the full effect of its oversized emotions. With Burton & Taylor and its tyro film director known only for comedy, I had my doubts. But I liked it so much I went back to see it again a couple of weeks later--something I hardly ever do--and found it just as riveting.

    2. I showed it to a class once and they really liked it, although one person wanted an intermission because the film was so emotionally intense!

  6. When Jack Warner originally bought rights to Virginia Woolf he planned for James Mason and Bette Davis to play. Albee was pleased with the choice, but he knew it could change. And Burton and Taylor did it instead. Wouldn't it have been interesting with Mason and Davis?