Great Oscarless directors

Posted by · 3:50 am · June 1st, 2008

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?

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22 responses so far

  • 1 6-01-2008 at 3:56 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    When Levees Broke wouldn’t have been eligible, given it’s original airing on television. But it was powerful (if repetitive) nonetheless.

    I’ve always objected to the vilification of “Kramer vs. Kramer.” Despite “Apocalypse Now” having a secure place in my top 10 films of all time, I think “Kramer” is a fucking powerful and emotional piece of work that never feels manipulative and showcases a damn fine performance from Dustin Hoffman.

    Sue me.

    Anyway, the real name on the list that speaks volumes, for me anyway, is Mr. Kubrick. If only because there will never…ever…be another filmmaker on his level. No one has ever aimed for the marks he aimed for and apparently no one else has it in them to do so. Even when he failed (“Eyes Wide Shut” is a mess), they still somehow felt more complete than anything else out there. And they still carried across more impact, somehow.

    Words can’t really describe his work or his ethic, but damn if it doesn’t piss me off that he was shafted for a helming Oscar.

  • 2 6-01-2008 at 5:19 am

    The Z said...

    At least Kubrick did win an Oscar for the visual effects in “2001.”

  • 3 6-01-2008 at 6:15 am

    limeymcfrog said...

    Cimino deserved the oscar over Ashby because “Coming Home” is an overrated melodramatic mess. Oscars aren’t always given out for bodies of work, and when they are we frequently complain.

    Pakula had one really great film (ATPM) and the rest are all a mixed bag. I certainly wouldn’t include him in the “great directors” category. And to say he deserved to win over Scorcese for Taxi Driver and Lumet for Network? I can’t entirely support that opinion, although any of the three would have been preferable to John G. Avildson. His best post-oscar work was The Karate Kid. Sad sad sad.

  • 4 6-01-2008 at 6:38 am

    Agent69 said...

    Akira Kurosawa, Robert Altman, Sergio Leone (not even a nom), François Truffaut, Tim Burton, Quentin Tarantino…

    And I’m gonna ignore that James Cameron comment.

  • 5 6-01-2008 at 9:52 am

    Joseph said...

    You forgot Fellini, Kurosawa, Truffaut, and Bergman – four of the absolute greatest directors without Directing Oscars.


    ***How could this great artist lose for “Psycho?” Someone please explain??***

    Because “The Apartment” was the better film.

  • 6 6-01-2008 at 11:18 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I echo the support for “Kramer vs Kramer” – not as great a film as “Apocalypse Now,” sure, but a pretty terrific one all the same that addressed a pretty topical social issue with compassion and admirably little sentimentality. A film shouldn’t be judged in terms of who it beat.

    And I think “The Deer Hunter” is an infinitely more far-reaching and enduring film than “Coming Home.” For once, the Academy actually took a chance on the more dangerous, flawed work, from an exciting young filmmaker – I wish they’d do that more often.

  • 7 6-01-2008 at 11:43 am

    Marvin said...

    Altman!! <3

    But what’s wrong with Robert Wise? His career was as varied as any.

  • 8 6-01-2008 at 12:51 pm

    Silencio said...

    I thought Apocalypse Now got Best Director..?

    I second that Bergman belongs on the list. Most definitely.

  • 9 6-01-2008 at 1:19 pm

    Proman said...

    I disagree with you on a number of points, including James Cameron, Robert Wise and George Roy Hill.

    Hill, in particular was a very interesting director, with a unique vision. I admit, I became a fan after watching “Slaughterhouse 5” but that movie had something very eerie about it. It really was a great adaptation of a challenging book.

    At the same time no one is going to argue about Kubrick. He really was one the absolute giants of cinema and my one-time big obsession. (By the way, I think “Eyes Wide Shut” is a near masterpiece, it’s “Full Metal Jacket” that I found to be messy).

    “Akira Kurosawa, Robert Altman, Sergio Leone (not even a nom), François Truffaut, Tim Burton, Quentin Tarantino…

    And I’m gonna ignore that James Cameron comment.”

    Well said, very well said.

    Ridley Scott, I think, is another omission.

    On the other hand I’ll never have a problem with Ron Howard being excluded from just about any list. In my opinion, his greatest contribution was narrating “Arrested Development”.

    Here’s another idea for a topic you can do in the future. How about great unnominated (for directing) directors:

    I’ll start with Terry Gilliam, Eric Rohmer, David Cronenberg, Richard Linklater, Darren Aronofsky, Sergio Leone, Sergei Eisenstein (just for the heck of it ;) )…

  • 10 6-01-2008 at 2:17 pm

    John Foote said...

    Not sure I ever state “Kramer vs Kramer” is not a great film, in fact I believe it is. However it is not a finer film than ‘Apocalypse Now” or “Manhattan” for that matter. Yep, Hoffman is brilliant as the father dealing with divorce and trying to get to know the boy who is his son, and Streep, well, I think my opinion of her is out there. It WAS a great film…just not the best of ’79. And “The Apartment” better than “Psycho”??? Sorry…disagree…and Robert Wise? Do I say anything is wrong other than he did not deserve to win for ‘The Sound of Music”? Don’t think so. Frankly ‘West Side Story” is among the most revolutionary film musicals ever made, and he made some impressive pictures over the years, “The Sound of Music” not one of them. Fivally, Alan J. Pakula had more than one great film. In addition to ‘All the President’s Men” he directed “Klute”, and “Sophie’s Choice”, superb works both, not to mention the one that got me in hit water a week or so ago, “Presumed Innocent”.

  • 11 6-01-2008 at 2:28 pm

    Neel Mehta said...

    James Cameron’s Best Director win was a groundbreaking achievement for the Academy. Feel free to quibble over his abilities as a storyteller, but Cameron brought new dimensions to the science and technical areas of directing, and deserved the award for that alone.

    Separate note: I’ve seen a ton of these kinds of posts, but strangely, Alan Parker is never mentioned in them.

  • 12 6-01-2008 at 3:03 pm

    John Foote said...

    “Jack”! “Rose!” “Jack!” Rose!” and then the ship sank — did the film have some impressive ghostly moments? Yep, but best picture of the year? Nope. What is amazing is that Winsldet and Di Caprio gave great performances amidst all those effects and Cameron’s non-existent script and bullying…and Alan Parker never made a better film than “Shoot the Moon”.

  • 13 6-01-2008 at 3:04 pm

    John Foote said...

    Sorry Winslet…

  • 14 6-01-2008 at 3:32 pm

    Blake Rutherford said...

    Terrence Malick.

  • 15 6-01-2008 at 4:14 pm

    John Foote said...

    True enough Malick deserves a win, but for what? His direction of “Badlands” was not better than Coppola’ ‘The Godfather Part II” and though beautiful “Days of Heaven” is a meandering, odd film weighted down with the dreary presence of Richard Gere. I loved “The Thin Red Line” but Spielberg’s “Saving Prviate Ryan” is a greater directorial accomplishment, and ‘The New World”, though lovely to look at, was a strangely muted film. Might have to enough for him that he is revered.

  • 16 6-01-2008 at 4:55 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I couldn’t disagree with you more about “Days of Heaven.” What’s odd about it? Sheer visual storytelling, that … about as pure and essential as cinema can be. Sorry, that’s one of my favourite films you’re knocking there.

    And “The Thin Red Line” is an infinitely greater film than “Saving Private Ryan,” in my opinion. There’s a debate that can go on forever!

    Finally, let’s face it … the fact that no director has ever won for a foreign-language film is the greatest embarrassment of all. I sense we’re getting closer to that day, but I’m still not holding my breath.

  • 17 6-01-2008 at 4:56 pm

    Xavi Rodriguez said...

    My overdues directors:

    -Ingmar Bergman: He deserves the Oscar especially for the great “Fanny and Alexander” instead James L. Brooks.
    -Federico Fellini: Unleast he has the record of most Oscars for foreign films than any foreign director…
    -Spike Lee: Beside he’s an egocentric asshole, he’s a talented director…
    -David Cronenberg / Terry Gilliam: Their proyects are almost always fantastic but many experimental or politically incorrects by AMPAS
    -Sidney Lumet: Why Avindsley won for “Rocky” and not Lumet for “Network”? Unleast for me, Rocky is one of the most overracted films that I even seen in my life
    -Francois Truffaut: One of the most outstading directors in history of cinema…
    -Akira Kurosawa: He deserves the Oscar especially for three films: “Roshomon”, “Ran” and “Seven Samurai”, and it’s crazy that the first asian director who won the Oscar was Ang Lee (Well Deserving Oscar by the way) only two years ago, when asian films are better in horror and epic films that american ones, where’re Mira Nair, Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-wai?…
    -Alfred Hitchock: Beside “The Appartment” is excellent comic film, the master of suspense is one of the most overdue directors in history
    -Atom Egoyan: Other interesting director with only one nomination in a film that, unleast me, it’s better that “Titanic” and James “i’m the king of the World” Cameron. In technical aspects “Titanic” is a good film but in cuestion of directing and screenplay is like a morning soup opera with a child love story…

  • 18 6-01-2008 at 4:59 pm

    Proman said...

    John, I think you are concentrating a bit too much on who was running against who in any particular year. It’s not something I would have expected in a topic called “Great Oscarless” directors. It’s whether or not an effort was truly Oscar worthy is what’s important.

    The worst (or the best thing) happens when you have several Oscar worthy achievements in the same year and one of them loses. Yes, one of them may be slightly less impressive than the other, perhaps even emparically so. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that it may have been an award worthy effort.

    Does an Oscar win means less in a weak year? That depends on the quality of the movie itself.

    Unfortunately, all of these things are almost always completely subjective. Just as our views on whether or not the Academy made mistakes.

    That said, I completely reject your view of Titanic. Yes, it has flaws but there’s a lot more to it than the ship and the iceberg.

  • 19 6-02-2008 at 8:45 am

    Blake Rutherford said...

    Yes, I am of the crowd that would have given Malick the Oscar over Spielberg and I do think he at least deserved a nomination in 1978 for “Days of Heaven.”

  • 20 6-02-2008 at 7:13 pm

    limeymcfrog said...

    Klute and Sophie’s Choice are good movies with great performances in them, not the work of a master technician. Presumed Innocent was a good genre flick, but nothing else. AND he had some stinkers to boot. He’s a one-trick pony with a good body of work otherwise. Far closer to Alan Parker than he is to Stanley Kubrick.

    I always find myself on the anti-fanboy position when it comes to “classic” films that were supposedly horribly shafted. I would have given the award to Kramer Vs. Kramer over Apocalypse Now because I think it is less brilliant, but more complete. Apocalypse Now is more important and revolutionary than it is actually good.

    Ordinary People over Raging Bull is the other one that I find myself on the wrong side of popular opinion. Raging Bull is technically incredible, but I think it was a pretty shallow biopic (just because the guy screams and pounds a wall doesn’t mean you had any insight into his brain) and ultimately I just didn’t care about Lamotta, whereas I LOVED Ordinary People and I think it still has a lot to say about family dynamics. I’d have given best director to Scorcese, but BP should still have been OP… IMOP. :)

  • 21 6-03-2008 at 5:22 am

    John Foote said...

    Man do I disagree with Ordinary People over Raging Bull, and a shallow bio? One of the great attributes I look for in a biopic is truth and whether or not the director has the courage to explore his subject warts and all. Attenborough (Gandhi, Chaplin) has NEVER had the guts to do that with any of his so called bios, however Scorsese did with Raging Bull. No insight? From the moment we see his comedy act, at the beginning and the man dancing, shadowboxing in the ring we know we are about to see a film about fighting himself constantly. His petty jealousies and rages, unable to control them; I suggest a closer viewing to understand the character. It’s a masterpiece because Scorsese pulls no punches and De Niro worked with his director to explore the character in all his grand ugliness. Ask yourself this, which film is better remembered, Raging Bull or Ordinary People? Now again, I like Ordinary People, it is a well crafted, beautifully acted film, simply not the best of 1980.
    And I stand by my admiration for Pakula. Most, and I say most not all great performances were guided by the director and both Fonda and Streep gave Pakula credit for their work. Good enough for me.

  • 22 6-03-2008 at 6:22 am

    limeymcfrog said...

    Fair enough on Pakula.

    I know I’m in the vast minority with Raging Bull, and I agree that he shows the warts, in fact that seems to be all he shows. I think I understand the character, but, turbulent though his life was, I wasn’t interested in him. I felt no connection to Lamotta, he goes from a dumb trainwreck of a human being who is a good boxer to a dumb train wreck of a human being who is a bad boxer… There’s no tragedy if you haven’t really lost anything. I believe Scorcese painted an accurate portrait of Lamotta and think DeNiro gave an incredibly brave perf, but I found no value and had no interest in his life. Harsh, I know.