I’m still trying to figure out how it happened. He did everything he was supposed to do. He made a movie that is everything movies are supposed to be. It had thrills. It had adventure. It had laughs. But more than anything, it accomplished the impossible: both critics AND audiences loved it. As the box office numbers grew, so did the accolades. And not just the early critical accolades, but the big prizes: The Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, the Director’s Guild. But, when the big moment came, when the nominees for the Academy Awards were announced, his name was not heard when the nominees for Best Director were read. The film was there for Best Picture, but not the man behind the camera who had brought the vision to life.
What were those lifeless, old farts at the Academy thinking? Don’t they realize that what they think makes a great director (or a great picture for that matter) is completely out of tune with the times? Hollywood is changing and they need to get on board. How could they treat arguably the greatest young visionary of our times this way? How could they ignore Steven Spielberg?
You read that right. Steven Spielberg. For the year I’m talking about is not 2013 but 1976. JAWS had set box office records and introduced the world to a new filmmaker. The film created the idea of the “summer blockbuster.” It changed what critics thought of as a “good film.” It was clever both in its writing and direction. Like Coppola’s The Godfather, JAWS had taken a best-selling pulp beach novel and turned it into something grand and glorious. It was the beginning of a new era of filmmaking, one that would see filmmakers push the limits of their medium to tell bigger, better stories.
And the man behind it all was snubbed by the Academy. In fact, it would be eighteen years and several movies later before Spielberg finally got his statue. He was nominated three times for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and E.T. (1982) before finally winning for Schindler’s List (1993). In 1985, another film, The Color Purple, was nominated for eleven Academy Awards including Best Picture but Spielberg didn’t receive a nod, though he did win the Director’s Guild Award on his fifth nomination.
All of this is not to say that Ben Affleck didn’t deserve to be nominated. I am one of the many who think he should have received a nod from the Academy. But, where I disagree with many film (and award) fans is that I don’t believe that this is simply “more of the same.” I don’t think Affleck’s being passed over shows us once again that the “lifeless, old farts” at the Academy are “out of tune with the times.” If this were true, would newcomer Benh Zeitlin really have been nominated for the beautiful Beasts of the Southern Wild? Rather, I think that what we have this year is one of those true rarities: a great year for movies. This year has been one of the best in a long, long time. Just look at the nine that were nominated for Best Picture: Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty. Plus we had a great Bond film with Skyfall, great superhero films with The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers, plus Flight, The Master, and Moonrise Kingdom. As far as the cinema goes, this year was awesome!
But sadly, when awards season comes, only a few can be nominated and even fewer will win. How does one choose the “best” when the genres are so far ranging. Comparing The Dark Knight Rises to The Avengers is not too difficult. Strip away the “superhero” tag and you have two Action-Adventure films that rely heavily on special effects. You know, kind of like Life of Pi. The process of trying to compare such disparate films is difficult. I think that this year’s nominees for director prove this point more so than the other categories. What, exactly, do we mean by the “best” director? What are we looking for from a director?
When Avatar lost out to The Hurt Locker (and James Cameron to ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow) in 2010, a close friend of mine was upset arguing that Cameron and Avatar should have won. Keep in mind, he was an early supporter of The Hurt Locker, urging everyone he knew to see it. But the day after the awards he went on passionately about Cameron’s “visual masterpiece,” claiming that it was the most beautifully photographed and realized cinematic experience (possibly) of all time. When he was finished, I said, “you do realize that it won for cinematography and art direction, don’t you?”. The point being that the very aspects he was so highly praising in Avatar were rewarded with Oscars. This is why we have different categories. It is not only why we have different categories, but even different judges. Directors award their peers in the DGA, actors in the SAG, writers in the WGA, and so on. But in the Academy, all of the various groups—producers, directors, writers, actors, cinematographers, editors, composers, costumers, effects artists, sound designers—in short, everyone it takes to make a movie, come together to collectively vote and award “the best.” And this is where the debate and bickering begin. Actors may not look for the same thing in a director that producers do. One simple way to look at it is that actors want someone who will help them achieve their best performance. Producers, on the other hand, want someone who can bring in a movie on time and under budget.
Then you have the fans. What is it that we want in a director? Based on the various conversations I’ve been having lately and my own trolling on the internet discussion boards, I’ve been able to identify various camps. There are too many to go into, but I would like to point out a few. One camp believes that a director’s worth is determined by the performances he gets from his actors. Based on this criterion, this camp seems to support David O. Russell, who gave us four acting nominees this year (one in each category). Another camp argues that a director’s worth is his ability to bring together a large cast and crew and tell a historically significant story that crosses multiple cultures. This camp seems to support Ben Affleck. Still another argues that a director’s worth is in his ability to push the technical limits of the medium and to create a kind of “magic” on the screen. For this camp, Ang Lee is the frontrunner. And still another camp argues for the ability to tell a compelling story without all the “distracting” bells and whistles. This camp seems to argue for either Michael Haneke or Benh Zeitlin depending on if they like young, unknown up-and-comers or pull more for the “body of work” system of awarding.
I really wanted Ben Affleck to be nominated. But who do we kick out? Spielberg, Lee, Haneke, Zeitlin, or Russell? I also wanted Kathryn Bigelow to be nominated. But that would mean kicking out two. So what do we do? I honestly don’t know. But I do know if we look at the three major awarding bodies that actually nominated directors prior to the Academy Awards—the DGA, BAFTA, and the Golden Globes, we end up with seven names: Affleck, Bigelow, Lee, Spielberg, Tarantino, Haneke, and Hooper. The first five were nominated for a Golden Globe, the DGA bumped Tarantino and Django Unchained for Hooper and Les Misérables. BAFTA brought Tarantino back but replaced Spielberg with Haneke. So, going into the Oscar nominations, Affleck, Bigelow, and Lee were the only “sure-things” with Spielberg and Tarantino coming in next, and Haneke the dark horse that might replace one of them. But then an interesting thing happened. Affleck, Bigelow, and Tarantino were all bumped for Haneke, Russell, and Zeitlin. These final three have recently become favorites in the various forums I mentioned earlier, with some going so far as to blame the “favored insiders” Steven “It Took Me 18 Years to Win” Spielberg and Ang “I Directed a Gay Cowboy Movie” Lee for bumping Affleck and Bigelow.
So who should have been nominated? Who was nominated who did not deserve it? I don’t think either of these questions can be honestly answered. What I do know is that adding in the Oscar nominations, the “best” directors of the year tally now stands at nine. This year the Academy also nominated nine (out of the possible ten) films for Best Picture. Guess what? Those nine films were directed by the nine best directors, five of whom were nominated for an Academy Award. I will not be disappointed no matter who wins. They are all deserving.
I began this post writing about Steven Spielberg, so I guess I’ll end with him as well. If he happens to win Sunday night, it will be his third, moving him up one rung past other two timers Clint Eastwood, Oliver Stone, and Milos Foreman, tying him with William Wyler for second place behind four-time winner John Ford. I would be okay with that. But winning isn’t everything. As Spielberg himself said before introducing the nominees for the 2011 Best Picture (and announcing The King’s Speech as the winner), “In a moment, one of these ten movies will join a list that includes On the Waterfront, Midnight Cowboy, The Godfather, and The Deer Hunter. The other nine will join a list that includes The Grapes of Wrath, Citizen Kane, The Graduate, and Raging Bull. Either way, you’re all in very good company.”