1966: It was the year Star Trek and Batman debuted on television. Charles Whitman, in the first mass murder in U.S. history, killed 16 people from a tower at the University of Texas. And Adam Sandler, Halle Berry, and J.J. Abrams were born.
At the movies, it was still the era of biggest is better. The number one film at the box office was The Bible: In the Beginning, and second was Hawaii, both almost three hours long. British films were also prevalent, earning many Oscar nominations and occupying a golden age for that country that has never really returned. Two of the five nominees for Best Picture were British, including the winner.
Alfie was one of the British films nominated, and it was the star-making turn for Michael Caine, who plays an amoral cad who seduces a number of women and treats them quite badly. It’s only Caine’s performance that lets us tolerate his bad behavior. It was directed by Lewis Gilbert and written by Bill Naughton, based on his novel and play. It also starred Shelley Winters as what we might today call a cougar, and Jane Asher, who is now best known as being Paul McCartney’s girlfriend while he was in The Beatles. Also known for it’s theme song, “What’s It All About?”
The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is something of an unusual film when it comes to Best Picture nominees–it’s a farce. A Russian sub gets grounded off the coast of Massachusetts, and panic sets in among the locals. It was directed by Norman Jewison, with a script by William Rose, who also wrote It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which bears much resemblance to the tone of this one. Alan Arkin received an Oscar nomination for his film debut as a Russian sailor, and it features a host of other well-known actors, such as Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint, Brian Keith, and Jonathan Winters. It’s one of my favorite comedies.
The Sand Pebbles is a very typical film of the era, a lumbering road-show picture, three hours in length. Directed by Robert Wise, it tells the story of a U.S. gunboat trying to keep the peace in China in the 1920s. It starred Steve McQueen, who earned his only Oscar nomination. The parallels to the Vietnam War are there if you look for them. Interesting about McQueen–he had a persona as the outcast for almost his whole career. It’s not too many modern stars who played basically the same role over and over again.
One of the splashiest films of 1966 was Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?, the star-studded adaptation of Edward Albee’s scathing play about marriage. The directorial debut of Mike Nichols, the stars were two of the most famous people on the planet, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as the constantly warring Martha and George. Sandy Dennis and George Segal are the unsuspecting guests that stop in for a nightcap. There is perhaps more drinking in this film that any other ever made. Taylor and Dennis won Oscars for their roles.
The winner for Best Picture was A Man for All Seasons, directed by Fred Zinneman. A very British, very stately, very PBS sort of film, it tells the story of Sir Thomas More, played by Oscar-winner Paul Scofield, as he defies King Henry VIII in his attempt to divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn. This period of time has been seen in many films and TV shows (such as The Tudors and Wolf Hall) but this was one of the first (other than the sillier The Private Life of Henry VIII). Robert Shaw makes a robust king.
All of these films have something to their credit–there’s no clinkers here–but my vote would have gone for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which still manages to be viscerally exciting fifty years hence.
Other notable films that year that some might think should have nominated were Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup; and, of course, Don Knotts in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.