Best Director Home Stretch: Scott Hicks for Shine

SCOTT HICKS FOR SHINE (1996)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Anthony Minghella for The English Patient

Joel Coen for Fargo

Mike Leigh for Secrets & Lies

Miloš Forman for The People vs. Larry Flynt

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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Shine has more in common with Searching for Sugar Man, the recent Best Documentary winner, than any of the artistic biographies (Hilary and Jackie, Pollack) that followed after its success. Scott Hicks, an  standard biopic fare with one or two brilliant sequences; its captivating force comes not from the directorial style but from the excitement of discovering David Helfgott’s dormant musical genius. Hicks’ real coup was in the casting of the film; nowadays, Geoffrey Rush is the best-known actor in the film, but at the time he was unknown outside of Australian stage. That this great talent was cast as the lead (along with Noah Taylor and Alex Rafalowicz) in an ensemble dotted with the likes of Lynn Redgrave and John Gielgud, reinforced the narrative of discovery. Even if Rush’s breakout led to greater success than Helfgott’s comeback (judging from YouTube, his talent is not as recognizably brilliant as it seems in the film), Hicks’ excavation of a nearly forgotten talent is a powerful narrative force in its own right.

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Best Director Home Stretch: Frank Perry for David and Lisa

FRANK PERRY FOR DAVID AND LISA (1962)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

David Lean for Lawrence of Arabia

Pietro Germi for Divorce, Italian Style

Robert Mulligan for To Kill a Mockingbird

Arthur Penn for The Miracle Worker

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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The sensitive character drama David and Lisa was shot in Philadelphia on a shoestring budget and went on to become a sleeper hit. That would be a commendable if unexceptional feat in the 1970s (note the Rocky parallel), but Frank Perry mustered the resources to make this film in 1962, just as American indie cinema was properly taking root. The movement that would later earn nominations for Cassavetes, Nava, and Soderbergh got its first major Academy recognition with this modest tale of mental illness. It was odd indeed to watch the film, initially bounded by the conventions of the psychotherapy melodrama, gradually transition into a character-driven story of a salutary friendship between two patients. Of course, many of its tactics would later harden into conventions of a new kind of movie, the “Sundance film,” but even if Perry’s debut film is no longer as fresh a piece of filmmaking or timely in its take on mental illness, the film still holds up for its thoughtful, character-driven take on the subject.

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Best Director Home Stretch: George Cukor for A Double Life

GEORGE CUKOR FOR A DOUBLE LIFE (1947)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Elia Kazan for Gentleman’s Agreement

Edward Dmytryk for Crossfire

Henry Koster for The Bishop’s Wife

David Lean for Great Expectations

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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We’re back on the Shakespearean stage again with George Cukor’s A Double Life, where an actor once more wrestles with the willpower of the character he has summoned. While Peter Yates’ The Dresser places us outside the head of the thespian who may or may not have disappeared into the madness of King Lear, Cukor burrows straight into the fevered mind of a man haunted by Othello’s jealous spirit. Curiously, both films make use of the Moor’s final scene, though in The Dresser it serves mostly as a vehicle to establish Sir’s domineering ego. A Double Life, meanwhile, structures the film around the interior paranoia of the tragedy’s second half, as the aging thespian Anthony John performs the scene on the stage as he draws inexorably toward enacting it in his own life. The film, only three years after Cukor’s taut thriller Gaslight, is a strange mixture of jagged noir aesthetics and Hitchcockian psychodrama in equal measures. The film’s uneven success is the result of the clash between of these respectively expressionist and explicit strands of 1940s Hollywood filmmaking.

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