Friday, July 8, 2016

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1966

The Contenders:

A Man for All Seasons (winner)
The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming
The Sand Pebbles
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

What’s Missing

It’s an odd set of nominations in 1966, especially considering the other movies that certainly could have been nominated. Let’s start with the kind of movies that don’t tend to get nominated. On the science fiction front, Fantastic Voyage is fun, but probably not worth considering. Seconds, though, is the sort of film that is just strange enough to be interesting for the Academy. While Westerns certainly have a long history of nomination, Italian Westerns don’t regardless of the quality, which explains the miss on The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It doesn’t explain the miss on The Professionals, though. Foreign movies also are often ignored, but there was no reason to ignore Persona or The Shop on Main Street. Other films worthy of consideration that I think belong are Blow-Up and The Naked Prey. Before someone mentions The Battle of Algiers, it got its nominations in 1968.

Weeding through the Nominees

5: It doesn’t surprise me that The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming may well have resonated more in 1966 than it does now, decades after the end of the Cold War. Even with that said, I’m not understanding the nomination at all. Sure, it’s a cute movie and it’s a pretty good farce. There are some decent performances here. But Best Picture? The biggest problem with TRAC, TRAC is that the situation we’re given is a lot funnier than the reality of the movie, and that seems like a really big problem for something that’s supposed to be a comedy more than anything else.

4. For me, the most interesting thing about The Sand Pebbles is that it was Steve McQueen’s only Oscar nomination. I like that nomination, but I don’t really get this as a Best Picture option aside from the fact that it’s well made and a pretty good spectacle. I think it’s a worthwhile film, but it’s also one that, despite having seen it just a couple of years ago, I don’t really remember a lot of it. That’s not a good sign for a film that wants to be thought of as the best film of its year.

3. I liked Alfie more than I thought I would. The primary reason for this is that Michael Caine is completely engaging as a sort of lovable sexist asshole. The conceit of the film is that Caine, as Alfie, tends to spend a great deal of the movie breaking the fourth wall. It actually works pretty well. The problem with Alfie is that it’s a little movie and a little story. It doesn’t have the scope and sweep that tends to be thought of as a Best Picture movie. I like it, but I don’t think it has the grandeur that a Best Picture should have. I love Caine’s nomination, but I’m unclear of why the movie was worthy.

2. A Man for All Seasons won, and I get why it did even though I obviously disagree. Putting it all the way up at second place may even be mildly controversial, because the biggest knock against A Man for All Seasons is that it’s not very exciting. This is a movie that takes place almost entirely inside the minds of the various characters—it’s a mental movie much more than it is anything else. It’s not dull. In fact, it’s pretty smart, and the performances really are good. It simply doesn’t rise to the level of what I think of when I think of Best Picture nominee, let alone winner.

My Choice

1: With Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? we have finally gotten to a place in 1966 where I actually understand the nomination. Given my own choices, this is the only one of the five actual nominations I would keep, and I think I could argue it as the best picture of its year. It might be a much different race with films like The Professionals, Persona and The Shop on Main Street in the running, and even more different with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly included. Nothing will change the fact that this film is brutal, acted within an inch of its life, and in many ways timeless. It would still be nominated today, and it would have made a much better and more worthy winner.

Final Analysis


  1. I'd agree with your ranking in that I think Virginia Woolf is the only one of the five that belongs in the nominations.

    I really enjoy the history in Man for All Seasons and the acting is brilliant but it's too prosaic and stately as a viewing experience.

    I wouldn't say Alfie is ALL Michael Caine but he's what makes it special and as a film it's merely okay.

    Sand Pebbles has good things in it but it's lumbering and tries too hard to be important. I thought Russians was crap, I struggled though but it was torture.

    I respect the filmmaking techniques and some of the acting of Virginia Woolf, Liz & Dick though I can't stand Sandy Dennis in it, but I've never liked the film. It still deserved to be nominated though it wouldn't be my winner.

    As for what's missing aside from the ones you mentioned, I'd say King of Hearts, Cul-de-Sac would be better choices than most of what made the cut and my choice for winner Fahrenheit 451. I know many consider it chilly and distant but I think that fits the concept of the movie perfectly.

    1. I actually really like Fahrenheit 451, and Ray Bradbury remains one of my favorite authors. He has been for about 40 years, in fact. It's a miss on my initial paragraph.

      I get not liking Virginia Woolf. It's a hard film to really enjoy. I do think it's truly great in the way that a Best Picture film should be.

      I didn't mean to imply that Alfie is all Caine, but he's the lion's share of what makes it worth watching. Actually, I'm pretty much in agreement on all of these. I didn't dislike TRAC, TRAC, but again, it's far funnier in its premise than it is in its execution, and that's a real problem.

      Gun to my head, my head still sides with Virginia Woolf but my heart probably goes to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or The Shop on Main Street.

  2. Completely agree with your decision, despite only seeing the top two spots. A Man for All Seasons is very good and has a strong script, but unlike Virginia Woolf, it doesn't manage to overcome its stage origins.

    Virginia Woolf is on my favourite films list, so obviously it would be my choice for winner. All the elements: script, acting, direction, cinematography and music, work wonderfully together, a major requirement for Best Picture (for me anyway).

    1. It's also one of those rare films (there have been only three) where every significant role was nominated for one of the four acting awards. For me, this award was one clear winner and four movies that didn't really belong.

      The 1001 Movies books has its problems, but it can sometimes be a useful guide. The fact that only one of these has made it into the book--your winner and mind--is worth noting here.

  3. I've only seen a couple of the nominees: I did rate A Man For All Seasons quite highly, it's a good example of a compelling character carrying an otherwise static film. I thought The Sand Pebbles was flawed but still quite good in a fatalistic way.

    Of other 1966 films not yet mentioned, Grand Prix is brilliant (I'm a motor racing fan!), and the often overlooked Khartoum is a bit hokey but plenty of fun - Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier chew up the desert. Torn Curtain also deserves a mention - not the best of Hitchcock, but a solid cold war drama.

    At the end of the day, there can only be one best film from 1966 for me: The Good The Bad And The Ugly is among the all-time best films ever made, and it dwarfs anything else in the conversation.

    1. As mentioned above, that would be my emotional pick, or at least one of my emotional picks. I love it, even if it needs some trimming in a few spots.

  4. I'd probably go with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but Virginia Woolf is a worthy pick.

    1. Honestly, I could happily accept either of them.

  5. Naked Prey ahead of TRAC X2 and Alfie.

    1. It's been years since I've seen The Naked Prey, but I can't see how I'd disagree.

  6. My pick would be The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It is hands down the best movie of 1966 in my book. Even in a year with Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.