Saturday, December 12, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "A Man for All Seasons" (1966)

Scene from A Man for All Seasons
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

A Man for All Seasons
Release Date: December 12, 1966
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Written By: Robert Bolt (Screenplay & Play)
Starring: Paul Scofield, Wendy Hiller, Robert Shaw
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Running Time: 120 minutes

Oscar Wins: 6
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Actor (Paul Scofield)
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Cinematography (Color)
-Best Costume Design (Color)

Oscar Nominations: 2
-Best Supporting Actor (Robert Shaw)
-Best Supporting Actress (Wendy Hiller)

Other Best Picture Nominees

-The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming
-The Sand Pebbles
-Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?

And the winner is...

One of the things that film has been most obsessed with is the art form that it has adapted most of its techniques from: stage. For instance, several films continue to be made regarding the works of William Shakespeare. While there is merit to even adapting the stories of which are compelling on the stage, few are often really considered for Best Picture the further into production and complicated camera tricks go. For director Fred Zinnemann's A Man for All Seasons, the stage is brought to life with an adaptation of a Robert Bolt play that is all about the history regarding Thomas Moore. For history buffs, it's likely to be an enjoyable drama about attempting to change history. For everyone else, it likely reads as a drama that clearly was written for the stage.

The original "A Man for All Seasons" began its life not on stage, but in radio. Bolt wrote the original script in 1954 for BBC Radio, which received a TV adaptation in 1957. However, Bolt's later success convinced him to return to the project and adapt it for the stage. When doing so, it premiered at the Globe Theater in July of 1960 before finding its way onto Broadway. As the years went on and it found success, Bolt eventually decided to adapt it into a film version. Among the various changes, the most noteworthy was the absence of "The Common Man," of whom was a character meant to be a narrator for the audience. With his absence came the introduction of new characters.

There was concern over who would play Thomas More within the film. The studio initially wanted Laurence Olivier, then Alec Guinness. However, Zinnemann refused to give either of them the part, believing that Paul Scofield, who originated the role on stage, was fit for the part. In order to keep costs below $2 million, most of the cast took pay cuts. Only Scofield, Susannah York, and Orson Welles were paid an amount over $10,000. Vanessa Redgrave was also considered for a large role, but settled on a smaller one as Anne Boleyn. She was so casual about it that she inevitably played the part without receiving any money or credit for the performance. 

For the most part, the production went smoothly. Among the only complaints was that regarding Orson Welles. Having been a perfectionist as well as a Hollywood outsider since the early 1940's, he was considered a little brutish during the filming. For starters, he used an authentic duplicate of quills and paper from the era in order to be more fitting of the part. In a more controversial moment, the actor claims that he directed all of scenes. This means that he personally kicked Zinnemann off set so that he could do his part. There has been no evidence to refute this. In less egotistical production stories, the production ordered a lot of Styrofoam in order to duplicate as snow. When the day of the scene came, it actually began to do so. 

The film ended up being a huge success for the studio. It was the fifth highest grossing movie of 1966. The film received 8 Oscar nominations that year while its closest rival, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?, racked up 13 - itself an achievement of being nominated in every eligible category. The film remains one of four Best Picture winners to also win the Tony for Best Play (the others being: My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and Amadeus). It was also the last time that only two of the Best Picture nominees were also nominated for Best Director. Zinnemann won his second Best Picture/Best Director combination following the previous decade's From Here to Eternity. Scofield, who was highly praised by critics, won Best Actor as well. To date, it is only one of two films to begin with the word "A," the other being A Beautiful Mind. Robert Shaw became the second person to be nominated for playing Henry VIII (following Charles Laughton). Since, Richard Burton has played him, thus making Henry VIII the only character to produce three Oscar nominations.

It is hard to judge the film's general legacy, as costume dramas would not be as popular in the years to come. While there were few others, such as The Lion in Winter, the rise of New Hollywood brought on a new and grittier type of drama that required contemporary realism. Even if period pieces have never truly vanished, there doesn't seem to be much correlation between A Man for All Seasons and the evolution of the genre when compared to the works of Laurence Olivier with Hamlet. While it would not be the last costume drama to win, it's definitely one of the last to win from an older and more staged model of acting. In the decades following, it is arguable that directors like Kenneth Branagh have done more for the art form than Zinnemann. Despite all of this, The Vatican lists it as one of the greatest films of all time.

Even if A Man for All Seasons seems like a dated and partially baffling winner, there's still something to be said for it from a production angle. With good performances by the cast, it brings the story of Henry VIII and Thomas More to life in ways that are compelling. Even if it started as a radio play, the evolution to stage and later film is an interesting one that shows how each medium has grown over time. Even if it's not considered one of the most riveting or immersive Best Picture winners in history, it definitely helps to parlay a look into a time forgotten and into a culture that used to be more commonplace. It may not be the best, but it's definitely one that serves as a solid alternative to the contemporary dramas of the day.

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