Friday, November 29, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1966

The Contenders:

Michaelangelo Antonioni: Blow-Up
Claude Lelouch: A Man and a Woman
Fred Zinnemann: A Man for All Seasons (winner)
Richard Brooks: The Professionals
Mike Nichols: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

What’s Missing

If you wanted to talk about the best direction of American films (in general) in 1966, the list of nominations for Best Director for this year would be pretty good. I’d argue for the all-but-forgotten Seconds from John Frankenheimer as a potential addition. Films like Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 was a British production, and Oscar rarely differentiates between American and British films. The three stars of Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly were American as well, and I’d happily argue for Leone’s achievement to be on the stage as well. But from here we need to talk about just how monster of a year this was for non-English films. In addition to Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman that did earn a nomination, and not including Gillo Pontecorvo’s astonishing work on The Battle of Algiers, which earned this nomination in 1968, we still have a full slate of potential nominees. I’m not sure I can rank these, so we can start with Robert Bresson’s Au Hassard Balthazar and Jiri Menzel’s compassionate and comical work on Closely Watched Trains. This is also the year for Vera Chytilova’s Daisies, triple-faulted by virtue of being foreign, Eastern European, and helmed by a woman. It’s also the year of two powerhouse films by two of the greatest directors in film history. 1966 was the year Andrei Tarkovsky made Andrei Rublev and the year Ingmar Bergman made Persona. Seriously, that’s a hell of a year.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. It is astonishing to me that in a year this fully packed with career performances behind the director’s chair that Oscar handed the statue to Fred Zinnemann for A Man for All Season. I should say here that I don’t hate the film, but for all of me, I can’t remember a great deal of it that isn’t just people standing around or sitting around and thinking really hard at each other. Zinnemann pointed his camera at people talking, and in a year this good, that was apparently enough for an Oscar. Great.

4. I enjoyed The Professionals a lot more than I thought I would. It was a surprise to me that I did like it that much, in fact, and it’s a well-directed movie. But in a year that had this much potential, Richard Brooks probably shouldn’t be on the dais. Again, I say this acknowledging that this is a movie that surprised me with how good it turned out to be. There’s no particular animus toward the movie that causes me to put it this low or not want to nominate it; there are just a lot of better performances in a hell of a good directors’ year.

3. Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman is another movie that I was surprised to like. It’s one that has surprisingly low stakes all the way through. Every time we expect there to be the good ol’ movie trope of someone ending up in a coma or having a serious accident…it doesn’t happen. It makes odd choices, like switching from color to black-and-white without a lot of rhyme or reason, and yet the entire thing works. I don’t know how it works, but it’s Lelouch that makes it work, which is probably why he’s here.

2. I don’t always like Antonioni’s work. In fact, I hate Zabriskie Point to an admittedly insane degree. But when he was good, he was very good, and Blow-Up is probably the best thing he did. This is a challenging film, one that takes several careful viewings to really pick apart. It works on every level, though, and in a lesser year, I could see giving this to Antonioni. He had the bad luck to create what I would consider his best movie in a year that was the best (or close to the best) movie for some of history’s greatest directors.

My Choice

1. I struggled for a very long time, not with putting Mike Nichols and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? first, but whether or not Nichols would be my choice. The position of this blog has always been that ties go to the Academy, and here’s the thing. I could easily argue for Tarkovsky. I could make a tremendous case for Bergman. I could wax poetic about Bresson. What I can’t do is argue against Nichols. It’s a masterclass in direction, and yes, while much of it is just people sitting around talking (see Zinnemann above), Nichols inserts himself in the film seamlessly and moves us perfectly from frame to frame and idea to idea.

Final Analysis


  1. For me, this would be a stand-off between Nichols, Leone and Menzel. Those are awesome directional performances. Still, when I think of Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf I think of the acting and the master class script. With that on hand it is, yeah, as if he just had to point the camera in the right direction. Leone was a cinematographic composer who got something more out of his script and his actors. Its... big! And Menzel, he managed to take a completely unexpected story and make it relevant and moving. Who to pick?

    1. It's a hell of a good year. I think I could make a convincing argument for about half a dozen people, and that's pretty surprising.

  2. Oscars totally got it wrong. Honestly, it should've gone to Sergio Leone for The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly with Ingmar Bergman as runner-up. I also would've vouched for Antonioni (a favorite of mine) as well as Lelouch, Tarkovsky, Bresson, Pontecorvo, and Chytilova. I love Francois Truffaut but Fahrenheit 451 is my least favorite film of his.

    1. Leone's omission is almost certainly from the fact that the Western had become more or less a foreign-only genre at this point. No one was really taking them seriously, so even when a great one showed up, nothing happened.

      Look at Best Picture nominees from the time. You get How the West Was Won a few years previous. After 1963, you get Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in '68 and then not a single Western until Dances with Wolves (although I'd check that--I could be wrong). Even The Professionals, good enough for a nod here, wasn't apparently good enough to be in the running for Best Picture.

  3. Yay someone else who despises Zabriskie Point!!! I'm not really a fan of Blow-Up either but it's a masterpiece compared to that pile of cow plop.

    I do like A Man for All Seasons but more for the performances and the subject matter than the direction which is suitably stately but fine director that Zinneman was he should have picked up the pace. His win is a symbol of the Old Hollywood still being in the driver's seat at the time and going for the tried and true. It's not a disgraceful win in that it's not a bad job but in this year he shouldn't have even made the list.

    Most people tend to admire Virginia Woolf far more than I. I can't fault Liz & Dick's performances nor Nichols direction, I just flat out didn't like the movie. But his nomination is warranted and in this grouping he should have emerged triumphant.

    I haven't seen all your alternate suggestions but agree with the ones I have. I particularly admire what Truffaut did with Fahrenheit 451, the chilly remove he instills in the picture suits the material perfectly. I would add Roman Polanski for Cul-de-Sac and Phillipe de Broca for King of Hearts.

    With them in the mix my choice would have down to a choice between Truffaut and de Broca. I'd probably go with de Broca for King of Hearts because of his balancing of its odd story which wafts between tragedy and whimsy, that's an incredibly tough line to tread but he achieves it.

    Since Battle of Algiers, which I'd nominate, competed the next year my list would run this way:

    Ingmar Bergman-Persona
    Phillipe de Broca-King of Hearts-Winner
    Mike Nichols-Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
    Roman Polanski-Cul-de-Sac
    Francois Truffaut-Fahrenheit 451

    1. Like I said above, I can't fault Nichols here, and the position of this blog has always been that the tie goes to the Academy. Gun to my head, my five are probably:

      Nichols--Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
      Leone--The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
      Tarkovsky--Andrei Rublev
      and either Chytilova or Bresson for the fifth spot. Had that been the nomination pool, I'm not sure how I would vote.