Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Howard Hawks, Stanley Kubrick, Preston Sturges, Ernest Lubitsch, Hal Ashby, Alan J. Pakula, Sidney Lumet, Spike Lee, Paul Thomas Anderson.
Collectively they represent some of the greatest directors in the history of the cinema, and together they share one rather unbelievable fact…not one of them is a Academy Award winner for Best Director.
Each has the distinction of nominee, of course. But to think that filmmakers such as James Cameron (The King of the World, remember?), Richard Attenborough, Ron Howard, Sir Carol Reed (for “Oliver,” man?), John G. Avilden, Michael Cimino, Robert Benton, Robert Redford, Robert Wise (for “The Sound of Music??”) and George Roy Hill, to name a few, have Oscars on their mantles and the giants above do not is simply insane to me.
In some cases, the aforementioned winners have defeated directors who have created sheer masterpieces of cinema. Robert Benton won for “Kramer vs. Kramer,” defeating no less than Francis Ford Coppola for “Apocalypse Now,” while Martin Scorsese saw “Raging Bull” fall to Redford’s “Ordinary People.”
One can understand in many cases, as the Academy tends to be conservative and many of the directors above made pictures that were considerably less than such, breaking down the boundaries of film, and allowing for something new, something vital and thrilling to happen.
Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” was such a film, a landmark of visual language, visual effects, editing and cinematic art that challenged its viewers to go on a journey that would somehow change them and the way they thought about life and movies. Demanding that his audiences take a part in his films rather than merely observe them, Kubrick plunged us into that world, bringing every sensory experience to us except taste and smell, but creating worlds so complete we were somehow able to imagine those senses. His masterpiece “A Clockwork Orange” is today, 37 years later as fresh and as new as it was when first released, a vision of the future that is still a possibility. And despite their age, neither of these films feels dated in the least.
Charlie Chaplin’s work as a director was often under-appreciated because of his genius in front of the camera, but it is important to remember that he was behind the camera on almost all of his films. “City Lights” is without doubt his greatest achievement as a director and actor, a heartbreaking and funny work of art, but his most powerful film remains “The Great Dictator.”
And Hitchcock, the master of suspense, was among those directors handed an Honorary Oscar after being nominated several times and losing. How could this great artist lose for “Psycho?” Someone please explain?? His “Rebecca” took the Best Picture trophy in 1940, however.
Hal Ashby and Alan J. Pakula had the misfortune of being overshadowed in the 1970s when giants like Francis Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma were exploding onto the scene. But both did superb work amongst the revitalization of the art form in those years, and each deserved an Academy Award for Best Director at least once (Ashby for “Coming Home” and Pakula for “All the President’s Men).
And Sidney Lumet? The great director of “Long Days Journey into Night,” “The Pawnrboker,” “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network,” “Equus,” “Prince of the City,” “The Verdict,” “Daniel” and most recently “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” also has one of those convenient Honorary Awards. I’d say he’s deserved at least three competitive Oscars, however.
Sturges, Lubitsch, Hawks — giants of the trade — all Oscarless, while in some cases lesser directors have gone on to win in their place and rarely direct anything of note again.
And Spike Lee — often his own worst enemy — but the fact his “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X” were all but ignored by the Academy, and his superb documentaries “Four Little Girls” (nominated, at least) and “When the Levees Broke” (snubbed) have never won sends a chill down my spine as his comments about racism within the Academy may have a ring of truth to them.
Let’s also bear in mind many of the films of these great filmmakers were not appreciated for what they were at the time of release. They were re-discovered years later — and hindsight is always 20/20. So better late than never, but clearly, this is a discussion of which I never tire.
Any freaky Best Director wins out there for you? How do you think it happens?