Armchair Oscars – 1966

Best Picture

A Man for All Seasons (Directed by Fred Zinneman)
The Nominees: Alfie, The Russians are Coming The Russians are Coming, The Sand Pebbles, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Directed by Sergio Leone)
My Nominees: 
Torn Curtain (Alfred Hitchcock)


The lead contenders for the 1966 Best Picture race were a pair of play adaptations that were not a lot of fun. Fred Zinneman’s adaptation of Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons and Mike Nichols’ adaptation Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? were both films about personal struggles. One was about a feuding couple who spend an evening locked in a spiteful screaming match and the other was about the struggle between Sir Thomas More and King Henry VIII over the king’s desire to divorce Catharine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn.

Of the two, I think A Man for All Seasons is a little more bearable, although Virginia Woolf has better performances. Yet, watching Zinneman’s film always feels a little like homework.

My favorite film of 1966 received no nominations, no critics awards, no awards of any kind whatsoever. Maybe that’s because Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly isn’t taken as seriously as it should be. It is seen, then and now, as a violent throwaway western, the third part of an unconnected trilogy behind Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965). This film is better than either of those films because it perfects the style he had been working on in the earlier two entries.

Leone’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is not a standard western – it is all style with a thin story that the director somehow manages keep compelling for more than three hours. It involves a story that is perfect simplicity: Three violent outlaws get bits of information about the whereabouts of a fortune in army gold buried in a shallow grave in an overcrowded cemetery. Two of the men know the cemetery but not the name on the grave; the other knows the name on the grave but not the name of the cemetery. Through a violent trek that crosses paths with The Civil War and leaves a mountain of dead bodies in its wake, the three men find themselves in the same place at the same time in an unforgettable standoff at that cemetery.

Leone clearly identifies these three outlaws by painting them in broad strokes. Clint Eastwood plays “The Good” – a nearly-silent outlaw known only as Blondie who sits atop his horse, draped in a serape, chomping on his stogie and squinting in the sun. Although he barley speaks, he is always thinking. He is a crackshot, and we get a sense of his skill during a cockamamie moneymaking scheme in which his partner, a wanted man, lets himself get arrested so that Blondie can collect the ransom then, right before the hanging, severs the noose with a sniper shot and frees his partner. Later, they split the money – Blondie decides the split.

His partner is Tuco (Eli Wallach – “The Ugly”) a bandito who never stops talking (even when he’s alone), who wants the gold but keeps switching alliances with Blondie depend on which man has the upper hand. There’s a scene when Blondie breaks their partnership, leaving Tuco out in the desert then later Tuco turns the tables, leaving Blondie to nearly die in the desert. Later in a monastery, he learns that Blondie has a valuable piece of information and tries, pathetically, to rekindle his partnership. I am not sure but I think Tuco gets more screentime than anyone else – he talks nonstop and moves thoughtlessly forward with any piece of information that will lead him to the loot. Wallach plays the character as a sweaty, angry little man with a loud mouth and a round face and a sort of pathetic means of begging for help. But Wallach keeps Tuco just a shade to the side of being a caricature. There is a nicely written scene that establishes his motives when he visits his brother, a priest, who disapproves of Tuco’s profession. “When we were growing up” he tells his brother, “you either became a priest or a bandito – I made my choice. You became a priest because you are too much of a coward to do what I do.”

The third man is a shadowy figure known as Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef – “The Bad”). He has been looking for the gold long before the story starts and he leaves a trail of bodies behind to find snippets of information. Whether or not the person that he is threatening has any information or not, they always end up dead. Angel Eyes has less screen time than any of the three men but his presence is felt the whole way. We sense his character in a brilliant opening scene in which he enters the home of a man who has a bit of information that he needs. He walks into the man’s house and sits down at the table to have a meal, spoons out his food and begins to eat, but he never takes his eyes off the man. The casting of Van Cleef in the role was a masterstroke. He has a lean, thin face and the narrow, pointed eyes of a snake. His voice is a monotone so his victims never know if he is coming or going.

These three characters are set on their mission through a backdrop that is unfamiliar to most Americans. Leone shot most of the desert scenes in Spain and to an American audience accustomed to John Ford’s westerns set in Monument Valley, this location might as well be another planet. As Blondie and Tuco cross the desert, Leone uses wideshots to suggest a landscape that is desolation and death. His camera bleaches some scenes to make us feel the blistering sun beating down on a landscape that seems to be little more than sagebrush, sand and heat. His visuals are not pretty, the color seems to be a little off and that makes the vistas more dreamlike, or more like a nightmare. When the three men have a standoff at the end, they arrive at a cemetery that seems to have been there for a hundred years, the headstones are mostly made of wood and seem hastily propped up, quickly painted then abandoned. The area in which the three men have their standoff is set just forward of the cemetery, a dirt circle that looks like an arena, with the only audience being the dead who surround it.

The cast of supporting characters all seemed to have been hired because of their faces. Like Coppola’s The Godfather, the backgrounds are packed with peculiar faces, not attractive at all. We see old faces, withered faces, sad faces, sun-bleached faces, faces that have experienced the worst of this desert environment and the gun-toting snakes that dwell upon it. There is very little happiness here (remember: this is The Civil War), this landscape is harsh, human life is frivolous.

There are scenes in this movie that are brilliantly executed. There is the scene in which Tuco finds a runaway wagon only to find that it is loaded with the dead bodies of Confederate soldiers. This is the scene where Tuco gets one part of the information and Blondie get the other (I have a theory that it was Angel Eyes who killed the soldiers). There is an incredible scene when the duo are captured by Union soldiers (they mistakenly think that the dust covered soldiers were wearing gray uniforms) and are taken to a POW camp. Tuco is tortured while Confederate POWs are forced to sit outside and play a sad tune on their instruments.

Oddly enough, despite the shootouts and bravado, what I remember most are the silences, the moments when the camera simply regards the landscape of desolation and dirt. It reminds me of how needlessly talky most modern films can be, of how afraid studio execs are of boring their audience by not having something going on all the time. Sergio Leone was a film craftsman, less interested in big stories than in atmosphere and mood and tone and structure.

Best Actor

Paul Scofield (A Man for All Seasons)
The Nominees: Michael Caine (Alfie), Alan Arkin (The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming), Steve McQueen (The Sand Pebbles), Richard Burton (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)

Richard Burton (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
My Nominees:
Michael Caine (Alfie)


Paul Scofield was a well-respected British stage actor who only made occasional stops in film. One of those stops got him an Oscar, the role of Sir Thomas More who stood up to King Henry VIII when the King rejected the Roman Catholic Church in order to obtain a divorce and a remarriage. It is a role he played on stage probably more times than even he could count, so naturally he walks through the role like an old pro.

I wish, however, that the academy had opened its mind a little bit and given its Oscar to another Brit who was also a veteran of the stage. Richard Burton never won an Oscar despite seven nominations. Of those nominations, the best performance was one he was expected to win – for his performance as the hen-pecked George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a role he had also played on stage many times. He was the expected winner, although he was so sure he would lose that he chose not to attend the ceremony.

His prediction was correct and his best performance went unrewarded. You can carp about Burton’s acting technique all day long, but it is hard to really complain about his work in this film. He occupies the role as if he’s been there for years. He plays George, a college professor who married Martha, the daughter of the president of the college. Once, long ago, they were probably young, vibrant and happy but as the years have gone on, the dreams have gone unfulfilled and an unhealthy flood of alcohol has washed away whatever happiness they once shared.

Now, stuck in a dusty old house, surrounded by a disarray of books and papers, he lives a life of endurance. His wife hates him, or at least screeches at him enough to make him think that she does. On his face is the sad expression of a man whose body once occupied a happy, youthful existence, an intellectual who had dreams. Now, in middle age, he lives under Martha’s constant flood of insults and condescension. Her insults are not just simply a sly dig but they are a slap at his very existence. “I swear to GOD, George, if you even EXISTED, I’d divorce you!”

Burton’s achievement in the role is to create a man, body and soul, who has been worn down to almost nothing. A man who drinks too much and takes his wife’s verbal abuse but gives as good as he gets. He is weary, there are bags under his eyes, his shoulders are slumped and the corners of his mouth are dropped down, meeting his jowls like an unhappy hound. The relationship with Martha contains no time-outs. Even in her chatty moments she still seems pushy as in an early moment when she can’t remember where she heard the line “What a dump!” She nags at him to recall it for her.

George is smarter than Martha, or rather, he has a better ability to break her down. She isn’t all that intelligent, or rather she was once intelligent but her bitterness has worn it away. He holds on to whatever intellectual foothold he had but he uses it to constantly fend off Martha. Not only do they go toe-to-toe with one another, but they also drag a young couple (George Segal and Shirley Knight) who have come for dinner into their hostile mixture. These two beautiful young people represent what George and Martha used to be.

It is sad that Richard Burton gives his best performance in a movie that I can’t watch again. The movie is an unpleasant experience and, I think, takes too many side trips, like an awkward scene in which Martha insists that they stop at a dance hall. The movie plays best when it just stays in the shattered home of Martha and George and simply concentrates on their loathing for one another. In the end, when both are spent, when they no longer have emotional rocks to hurl, they find a moment of clarity. Whether it will last is hard to say.

Best Actress

Elizabeth Taylor (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)
The Nominees: Lynn Redgrave (Georgie Girl), Vanessa Redgrave (Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment), Ida Kaminska (Obchod na Korze), Anouk Amiee (Un Homme une Femme)

Elizabeth Taylor (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)
y Nominees: Jane Fonda (Ash Wednesday), Natalie Wood (This Property Condemned)


It does not surprise me that Bette Davis was the first choice to play role of Martha, the vile, screeching harridan in the screen adaptation of Edwin Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? This was the kind of role that Davis could play in her sleep and she would have been brilliant. She was excited about the opportunity and even convinced producer Ernest Lehman that her co-star should be Henry Fonda.  Lehman, however, had someone else in mind for the roles of two Ivy League intellectuals who spend one evening tearing each other apart with nasty head games. He instead went with the real-life couple of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Davis would have been perfect for the role but I think giving it to Taylor was a masterstroke because it afforded her a challenge. Taylor’s best moments on screen come from her vulnerability, she has a way of reaching out to us in the audience and we love her, not just because she’s beautiful but because she has a way of fully immersing us in her character. That’s why Martha is such a shock, she doesn’t look, act, walk or talk like anyone Taylor ever played. This is a completely different direction for her as an actress but sadly it would be her last good performance. To watch the chronology of Elizabeth Taylor’s film work, there is nothing that prepares us for Martha.

This was one of the most astonishing transformations in movie history as the radiant Elizabeth Taylor, 32 at the time, goes from slim, young and beautiful to an overweight, embittered, drunken old hag. To get a better scope of how much she changes in this role, consider how she looks in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and how she looked in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, made just eight years before. It is hard to believe it is the same actress.

We understand this woman from the beginning even before we get a close up. When she and George enter the door, we see the look on his face, the look of a hard-drinker with the corners of his mouth worn down. It only takes a moment to sense the mammoth amount of strength that it takes to spend time with this woman. We see in Martha, years of bitterness, years of hard-drinking, years spent wrapped up in her anger. She takes it out on George, not because he has betrayed her, but simply because she can. The two don’t have a foothold with one another unless they are scratching away at the faults they’ve made.

To fully appreciate Taylor’s performance, it is wise to have seen the work she had done in the decade before. Watch her in Butterfield 8 and Cleopatra and Suddenly Last Summer, films that take advantage of her beauty.  In those films, you will see that while she tries hard, she always had her sparkling appearance to fall back on. This time it would be different because this material forces her to explore the depths of the character in order to expose Martha as the screeching old hag but then earn a modicum of sympathy at the end, when she has finally run out of anger and resentment.

We know that Martha is an alcoholic, but I think she is also addicted to her own rage and resentment. Like a drunk who keeps returning to the bottle, so too does Martha return to George to find another issue to argue. For what reason? As we watch her, she has spent so much time in anger and in rage and self-pity that finally at the end she arrives – as addicts do – at a moment of clarity.

While I love Taylor’s performance, it saddens me that I don’t like the film as a whole. Maybe it is a fault of the play (unseen by me).  The story takes unnecessary side trips, like an awkward stop at a dance hall, and too many scenes of Sandy Dennis struggling to stay conscious. This is a good performance movie, but is not much fun to watch.  The movie works best when it stays in the shattered home of Martha and George and simply concentrates on their loathing for one another.

Sadly, this would be the end of an era. This would be the last great performance by Elizabeth Taylor, who would spend the next decade in mediocre films and television movies. She never reached this height again. By rights she should have found better roles, because after the disparaging experience of playing a character like Martha, it is clear that she had many more notes to play.

Home | What is all this? | Contact Me

2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004 | 2003 | 2002 | 2001 | 2000 | 1999 | 1998 | 1997 | 1996 | 1995 | 1994 | 1993 | 1992 | 1991 | 1990 | 1989 | 1988 | 1987 | 1986 | 1985 | 1984 | 1983 | 1982 | 1981 | 1980 | 1979 | 1978 | 1977 | 1976 | 1975 | 1974 | 1973 | 1972 | 1971 | 1970 | 1969 | 1968 | 1967 | 1966 | 1965 | 1964 | 1963 | 1962 | 1961 | 1960 | 1959 | 1958 | 1957 | 1956 | 1955 | 1954 | 1953 | 1952 | 1951 | 1950 | 1949 | 1948 | 1947 | 1946 | 1945 | 1944 | 1943 | 1942 | 1941 | 1940 | 1939 | 1938 | 1937 | 1936 | 1935 | 1934 | 1932-33 | 1931-32 | 1930-31 | 1929-30 | 1928-29 | 1927-28 |

Contact me @