Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.
The two major contenders for the 39th Best Picture prize were a pair of widely acclaimed play adaptations that are no doubt brilliant but were both so super serious that watching them feels like a plate of broccoli. Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Fred Zinneman’s adaptation of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons were both about bitter personal feuds and neither is what you’d call fun.
In Nichols’ case, the story of a well-off married couple (Richard Burton and Best Actress winner Elizabeth Taylor) whose 20 year marriage has withered down to hateful spite games soaked through bitterness and alcohol. Bolt’s adaptation of his own play, meanwhile, retells the story of British statesman Sir Thomas More (Best Actor winner Paul Scofield) and his refusal to go along with King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) who wishes to defy the Roman Catholic Church in order to divorce Catherine of Aragon so he can marry Anne Boleyn. Fun! Fun! Fun!
Given a choice, I wouldn’t sit through either film again on a given evening. Given a mandate, I’d have to think it over. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has the better performances but a story that is a bitter pill to take. The Academy’s choice was A Man for All Seasons which is easier to sit through but always feels like a homework assignment, although there is a lot to admire. I admire it greatly for being more about principles and ideals than about getting the historical bric-a-brac in the right order. Who couldn’t feel something for More who is asked to set aside his deeply felt religious convictions in order to satisfy his king, and by extension sparing his own life (he was beheaded for this in 1535). Given that, A Man for All Seasons is apt for a lot of discussion afterwards, and given the current social climate, it asks a lot of questions that are relevant to our society today. That’s the key, you’re thinking about it when its over. How many movies do that?
So where are my negatives? Well, for one, the movie is based on a play and it feels like a play. While the technical work here is adequate, there isn’t much in the way of transitioning it to a full-blooded film. It feels stagey as long passages are given over to dialogue in period dress. Also, while I got caught up in the issues at hand, I always find the movie a little dispassionate. Thomas More knows the consequences of his refusal, but seems oddly unfazed. He’s faced with death, but you always sense that he’s given to his fate even as he approaches the chopping block.
A Man for All Seasons is a movie that I admire without much enthusiasm (which should be abundantly clear by now). I don’t I revisit all that often. Of the ten Best Picture winners of this decade, it is the one that I’ve seen the least, not because I dislike it but because there are better films from this particular year. This was the year of Blow Up, The Good The Bad and the Ugly, Fantastic Voyage, Persona, Georgy Girl, and Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain. Given those choices, I’m happy to leave A Man for All Seasons on the stage.