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?
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.
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.