Best Director: Back on Track

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Let’s give this another try! A year ago, my attempt to plow through the remaining Best Director nominees sputtered to a halt for a number of reasons. I’ll be resuming this undertaking presently, but I’d like to take a moment, first to take stock of the reasons for the abrupt cutoff last summer, and then to resolve to finish the job this time. This blog, essentially, is a private journal that I happen to open up to the internet, but occasionally the public aspect to my writing has its advantages. Even if I know only three or four of you out there will read this, saying these things to the world makes them concrete in a certain way. By enumerating the reasons I fell short before—and why this time will be different—this post may assume the role of a contract, and I hope the memory of writing this will motivate me on the long road ahead!

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Category Check: Best Director

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So by process of elimination, Best Director will be the next category that I next set out to complete.  It feels more than a little odd to switch from the most feminist category, Best Actress, to the most male-centric of the major categories.  Still, I feel a great affinity for this category.  True, their choices aren’t quite as wild as the writers’, but those guys get two whole categories to squeeze in their edgiest picks (I sometimes wonder what we’d get if, say, the directors split into Best Writer-Director and Best Metteur-en-scene).  Nevertheless, the Director category has pretty reliably snuck a dynamic deviation or two (no gender bias intended) in with their Best Picture-mirroring slate, whether it’s a revered master who gets in at the expense of a young’un (Hitchcock over Brooks in 1960, Altman over Reiner in 1992) or a foreign master who edges out a blockbuster-riding demigod (Antonioni over Wise in 1966, or Almodovar over Jackson in 2002).  This is the *classy* category, counting just among the non-winners:

  • 5 nominations: Hitchcock, Altman, Vidor
  • 4 nominations: Fellini, Kubrick, Lumet
  • 3 nominations: Lynch, Bergman, Lubitsch
  • 2 nominations: Malick, von Sternberg, Tarantino
  • 1 nomination: Kurosawa, Cassavetes, Welles, Almodovar, Truffaut, Anderson, Hawks, Antonioni, Haneke…I could go on…

Of course, this is also an overwhelmingly white and male category, with a history of notable exclusions and snubs (Spike Lee, Barbra Streisand, Kathryn Bigelow).  Still, I can’t help but be impressed by an array of directing styles that ranges from David Lean’s minimal melodrama in Brief Encounter to Spike Jonze’s kinetic whimsy in Being John Malkovich, from John Sturges’ taut thrills in Bad Day at Black Rock to Julian Schnabel’s impressionistic reveries in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Granted, it’s a category that does place these brilliant films alongside the indulgent and lazy (even self-parodic), but one that I love for the wild array of expressions of a directorial vision.

Of course there is a well-known overlap with Best Picture, with 3/5 or 4/5 in a typical five-Best Picture nominee year, and a 5/5 overlap in years with more.  This close resonance has helped me get pretty darn close to finishing this category: at present I have seen 371 of the 421 nominated films, leaving a nice, round 50 films yet to be seen, including a mere three of the winners. (NOTE: the nominee and win totals include the winner and nominee for the Best Comedy Director category that existed for the First Academy Awards).  The remaining films are split fairly evenly between Best Picture nominees (many of which I mention here) and the lone wolfs.  Among the outliers are such extreme visions as Martin Scorsese for The Last Temptation of Christ and Bernardo Bertolucci for The Last Tango in Paris, in addition to what I expect to be milder fare, like Jean Renoir’s The Southerner, and the usual unknown quantities, like Richard Brooks’ The Professionals).  This category is very much an insider’s club, but I’m particularly looking forward to the one-time nominees, like Hiroshi Teshigahara for Woman in the Dunes and John Farrow for Wake Island.   I’m curious to see what kind of impact they can have on the collective definition of this category.

A minor note: for as much as it ostensibly represents the director as sole auteur, though, Best Director more than any other is bound to the other categories.  By my count, I can find only eleven films that earned their sole nomination for Best Director: Herbert Brenon for Sorrell and Son, Frank Lloyd TWICE for Drag and Weary River, King Vidor for Hallelujah!, Mark Robson for The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, Arthur Penn for Alice’s Restaurant, Federico Fellini for Fellini Satyricon, Martin Scorsese for The Last Temptation of Christ (thanks to Bob for pointing this one out!), Robert Altman for Short Cuts, and David Lynch TWICE for Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr.  Strong though the myth of the director might be, the rest of the honorees are still tied to the excellence of their collaborators.

Category Check: Best Picture

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Well, Best Picture is the star of this show, perhaps the first and foremost accolade for a film to earn.  This category, more than any other, is meant to define the filmmaking industry as a whole.  In spite the layers and layers of stereotypes for what this category favors, the 506 nominees in this category cover an astonishing array that I can’t even condense into one of my usual run-on sentences.  So here’s a list of two nominees per decade, just to sample the staggering range of films that contribute to the definition of a Best Picture nominee:

  • 1930s: The Thin Man and Grand Illusion
  • 1940s: The Ox-Bow Incident and Double Indemnity
  • 1950s: Father of the Bride and Marty
  • 1960s: Dr. Strangelove and Mary Poppins
  • 1970s: The Exorcist and Taxi Driver
  • 1980s: Raiders of the Lost Ark and Fatal Attraction
  • 1990s: Beauty and the Beast and Pulp Fiction
  • 2000s: Moulin Rouge! and District 9
  • 2010s: Inception and The Tree of Life

For all of its considerable blind spots and prejudices, this is nevertheless a remarkable cross-section of film history.  Given it’s supposed importance, of course this category has been scrutinized every which way (Best Director overlap, box office bumps) and retooled a number of times during the first twenty and last five years.  For what it’s worth, I love it whenever the field of nominees is expanded beyond the typical five, widening the spectrum to The Blind Side as well as Amour and aspiring to the “cross-section” goal, while also virtually guaranteeing that everyone will passionately agree and stridently disagree with one choice or another.  While I cherish the rare slate that I can admire in its entirety (1939, 1975, 1979), the truth is that I’m more excited by the fact that most years present me with a clunker as well as a brilliant work, since it demonstrates that the category is working when it comes to representing an array of opinions and tastes.  As long as there is a Ghost to offset Goodfellas, or a Cries and Whispers to counterbalance American Graffiti, then the system is working beautifully.

This is one of the categories that I’ve pursued more actively than others, making a point to see rare films like The White Parade and Trader Horn, or neglected ones like Quo Vadis or Nicholas and Alexandra, because of their designation.  Still, that’s only gotten me as far as 436 of 506 of the nominated films, leaving me with 70 films to go.  Almost all of these films are significant in one regard or another, whether for their spectacular box-office success (Airport), or for their overweening ambition (The Alamo), their artistic achievement (The Thin Red Line), social message (The Defiant Ones) or sumptuous craftsmanship (Anthony Adverse).  I’m looking forward to films with sizeable critical cache (Z, The Magnificent Ambersons) and those with none at all (One Foot in Heaven, Doctor Dolittle).  Most of all, perhaps, as usual I gravitate back toward World war II, and especially the trio of unseen 1942 nominees: The Pied Piper, 49th Parallel, and Wake Island, to further illustrate how the narrative of the war was playing out at the very height of the conflict.

(NOTE: For the purposes of this category, I cast a wide net, including the “Best Unique and Artistic Production” winner and nominees from 1927-28).

All in all, Best Picture is a treasure trove of films I know about and care about seeing.  However, I plan to save this category for last, whittling it down as I close out Director, Acting, and Screenplay, and finally tackling the 19 films that stand alone in this category.  Part of this is a curiosity about the movies that were great enough in their sum, but not in their parts, to earn a Best Picture nomination without the usual above-the-line accolades.  (I should note that I’m still debating whether to save The Magnificent Ambersons for last, in spite of the fact that it also merited a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Agnes Moorehead, or go with Ruggles of Red Gap, whose sole nomination was for Best Picture)  The end of this category will be an epic relief and a poignant farewell, but it won’t be coming for some time yet!

Category Check: Best Actor

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I’ve often mentioned that Best Actress attracted me because so much of it was off the beaten track—as strong roles for women have always been in the minority since the Academy was founded, a lot of the nominees have been marginal in the narrative of film history.  Not so with Best Actor, given the wealth of male-centric roles out there.  It was hardly a coincidence that, of the first twenty films I saw after completing the marathon, ranging from blockbusters to indies, documentaries to classic Hollywood, all but one—Before Midnight, with its equal billing of Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke—favored the men.  As a result, I’ve often expected this category to kind of take care of itself.  Even removing the heavy Best Picture overlap (which I’ll discuss below) from consideration in both categories, just pursuing Best Actress helped to polish off a couple dozen Actor nominees in the process: James Mason in A Star Is Born, Laurence Fishburne in What’s Love Got to Do with It, etc.  However, it wasn’t until I took a full tally that I realized how much the category truly is its own beast.

To my surprise, I’ve seen of 298 of 421 Best Actor nominees, meaning that I’ve still got 123 performances to go in this vaunted category, including thirteen winners (with one in every full decade!)  That leaves this as the category with the most work left for me to do, even if I’ve seen a greater percentage of these than I have in Original Screenplay (where I hover under than two-thirds done).  Among the missing are landmark wins (Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field, Paul Newman for The Color of Money) as well as deeply polarizing portrayals (Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris, Denzel Washington in both Malcolm X and Training Day).  Some actors are relatively unknown quantities for me (Dan Dailey, Anthony Franciosa), while others I primarily know as Bond villains (Giancarlo Giannini, Javier Bardem—just kidding, but seriously I scarcely know the first thing about him in Before Night Falls).  I’m definitely looking forward to checking out the nominees of the 1980s: good or bad, films with concepts and source materials as diverse as Starman, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Under the Volcano, and The Stunt Man intrigue me.

Best Actor is a fabled category, with many of the iconic performances in American film finding a place in the spotlight: from Brando and Peck to De Niro and Hopkins, innumerable iconic performances and characters have won, while Welles, O’Toole, and company have rounded out the nominations.  In so many cases, the Best Actor race has played out as a shadow of Best Picture: the categories do occasionally stray off in separate directions (including complete separations in 1927/28 and 2006), but as goes Best Picture, often so go the Best Actor wins (27 of 86) and nominations (54 of 86).  Even seemingly female-oriented Best Pictures like Mrs. Miniver and Annie Hall, which won for their leading ladies, managed otherwise-unlikely nominations for Walter Pidgeon and Woody Allen.  This category also has a strong tendency to reward a career, either in an actor’s twilight (John Wayne, Richard Farnsworth), or following a decade or more of well-liked work off the beaten path (Edward Norton, Lee Marvin).  Altogether, far fewer individuals earn multiple nominations in this category than in Best Actress, and those that do generally earned far fewer than the six-to-twelve nominations garnered by the likes of Bette Davis, Jane Fonda, or Katharine Hepburn, let alone the phenomenon-unto-herself that is Meryl Streep.  Indeed, the lifetime nominations ceiling stood at five until 1960, when Spencer Tracy went on a run that pushed it up to its present cap of 9.

Even though, as I’ve said, this category has an appreciable number of unique entries, it still remains more heavily intertwined with the Picture, Screenplay, et al than the other acting categories.  Consequently, I expect the mountainous number in this category to whittle itself down as I prowl through the surrounding categories, and I’d rather let this category shrink down to a manageable size before tackling it head-on.

NOTE: As far as lost films like The Patriot are concerned, if I’ve seen all of the surviving footage, then I check it off my list.  In other words, if there’s nothing more I can do, then there’s no reason for it to be on what’s essentially a “to do” list (and the same goes for films like Cleopatra or The Wizard of Oz with famous missing scenes).  If more or all of The Patriot does turn up, then it’ll be unchecked, but I’m certainly not holding my breath.  Also, from what little remains of Lewis Stone’s performance, I know enough to say that I prefer Emil Jannings and that Warner Baxter is my favorite of the nominees to date.

Category Check: Best Supporting Actor

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Best Supporting Actor is up next, a category that also shares a dynamic relationship with its Leading counterpart.  Unlike Actress and Supporting Actress, the Actor categories mixed early and often, with traffic in both directions: John Garfield, Clifton Webb, Jose Ferrer all hit Supporting en route to Lead, while Frank Morgan, Walter Huston, and Monty Woolley moved in the other direction, and Barry Fitzgerald famously straddled both categories with a single role in Going My Way.  From the 1950s to the 1970s, the flow shifted pretty decisively in the direction of SupportingàLead, especially in the “springboard” capacity (Richard Burton, Jack Lemmon, Jack Nicholson, and Robert De Niro as examples of decorated leading men with a lone Supporting nomination to kick things off).  After a period of relative equilibrium, the flow has also shifted heavily toward LeadàSupporting in the past ten or fifteen years, with only George Clooney bucking the trend since the year 2000.

As far as my progress is concerned, I have my work cut out for me in this category: I’ve checked off 268 of 385, leaving 117 perormances to go, including seventeen winners.  There are plenty of embarrassing omissions, either for the performer himself (Robert Mitchum in The Story of GI Joe, John Lithgow in The World According to Garp) or just the film (Dennis Hopper in Hoosiers, John Cassavetes in The Dirty Dozen).  A great many of the names here are familiar to me, though I’m very curious to see how some will stretch themselves beyond how I know them already—Anthony Perkins in Friendly Persuasion, for example.

The category has many of the same traits as Best Supporting Actress, including its service as a campground for revered star performers and disguised co-lead roles.  Due to the perennial strength of the competition in Best Actor, this category has featured some of the most egregious category fraud, with worthy leading performances (Tinothy Hutton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Haley Joel Osment) showing up here as a political calculation by the distributor campaigning for the film.  Nonetheless, I am a great fan of many of the performers and performances here, and I’m also quite enthusiastic about the number of atypical nominees, from Vittorio De Sica for A Farewell to Arms (seriously, who’d have thought?) to Mako for The Sand Pebbles to Bobby Darin for Captain Newman , MD—and that’s just amon theones I haven’t seen yet.  The Best Picture coattails effect also comes into play here, as at last one Best Picture nominee has been represented here in every year (except one!  I’ll leave it to you to figure out which it is!)  However, I feel that the trend is a little weaker here than it is in Supporting Actress, with groundswells of support for a performance (Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast) or a career (Nick Nolte in Warrior) more frequently finding a place in the Oscar race.  With the range of titles that await me, I also look forward to tackling this category, though I think 117 is a pretty tall order for now!

Category Check: Best Supporting Actress

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Next up is Best Supporting Actress: another young, stable category with a relationship to an older, more hegemonic category–in this case, Best Actress, my wheelhouse.  The formation of the Best Supporting Actress category in 1936 led to a fascinating, evolving relationship between the two.  As the slate of 1936 set of nominees suggests, the advent of Supporting Actress at first opened up the Oscars to a whole new range of roles and performers.  Indeed, during the first two decades of the categories’ coexistence, while character actresses like Ethel Barrymore and Agnes Moorehead racked up nominees in Supporting and studio stars like Greer Garson and Katharine Hepburn thrived in Lead, only five actresses (Fay Bainter, Olivia de Havilland, Teresa Wright, Jennifer Jones, and Grace Kelly) surfaced in both classes.  After that, the two began to mingle, as the first generation of A-list stars began roosting in secondary roles: Wendy Hiller & Shelley Winters, as past Best Actress nominees, and Ingrid Bergman & Helen Hayes, as past winners, all won in Supporting.  Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, the flow reversed as an increasing number of rising stars like Michelle Pfeiffer, Julia Roberts, Annette Bening, and Kate Winslet earned Supporting nominations on their climb up to the Best Actress plateau. These days, the flow has reversed again, with ten actresses migrating from Lead to Supporting in the past decade, versus two (Michelle Williams and Jessica Chastain( who moved in the other direction–a number that will likely rise in retrospect, but still quite low.  All in all, 63 of the category’s 295 unique individuals have shown up in both categories, though only a few (Geraldine Page, Shelley Winters) have anything like a balanced split between the two.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Best Supporting Actress is now my strongest among the three remaining acting categories: I’ve seen 292 of 385, leaving 93 performances to go (including fourteen winners).  There are plenty of gaps I look forward to filling, including actresses I got to know through the Best Actress quest (Edith Evans for The Chalk Garden, or Geraldine Page for three still-unseen films), and those whose names I only know because of their nominations in this category (Flora Robson for Saratoga Trunk, Marjorie Rambeau for Primrose Path and Torch Song).  In this category, I look forward to the individual films more than the individual performers in most cases, such as John Cassavetes’ Faces (Lynn Carlin) or seminal disaster film Airport (Helen Hayes and Maureen Stapleton).

If Best Actress has always interested me for the way in which the nominated performers seem to will themselves and their films into the Oscar conversation, single-nomination films are rare in this category.  I cheer the cases where Jacki Weaver for Animal Kingdom or Laura Dern for Wild at Heart can break on through, but this category sometimes frustrates me with its tendency to reflect the opposite phenomenon: performers riding in on the coattails of major awards-contender movies.  Since 2000, eight films—seven of them Best Picture nominees—have featured dual Best Supporting Actress performances (contrast this with only 5 such instances in the entirety of the Best Actress category).  I find this a deeply mixed blessing, as it can bring small roles (Viola Davis in Doubt) and obscure performers (Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air) to the fore; but also often reflects lazy thinking that brings in actresses as an extension of the goodwill for another aspect of the film.  Still, I can’t dismiss a category that features such brilliant wins as Tilda Swinton’s for Michael Clayton and Jane Darwell’s for The Grapes of Wrath, or nominees like Lily Tomlin for Nashville and Julianne Moore for Boogie Nights.  I do hope to explore this category in the future, and it may be the next acting category that I attempt, but it will still have to wait!

Category Check: Best Original Screenplay

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In contrast with Adapted Screenplay’s tortuous early lineage, Original Screenplay, the youngest of the major categories, has always featured five nominees and reasonably clear criterion: that the screenplay not be based on preexisting written material.

But it wouldn’t be the Academy Awards if that central premise weren’t riddled with loopholes and ambiguities.  Authorship, narrative, and originality have always been fraught topics in filmmaking, as this category bears out:

  • Fiction and feature-length criteria have been permeable in the past: unique among the Big Eight, Original Screenplay has featured a nomination for a documentary (Helen Slote Levitt, Janice Loeb, and Sidney Meyers’ The Quiet One) and a win for a short film (Albert Lamorrisse’s The Red Balloon).
  • Sequels to original screenplays (Norman Panama and Melvin Frank’s Road to Utopia, Harry Kumitz’s What Next, Corporal Hargrove?) were initially allowed to stay “original,” even if the writers differed between the films, and were only later shunted over to Adapted.
  • A persisting standard allows films based on historical fact (including biopics from Wilson to Milk), even those that credit pre-existing sources (Letters from Iwo Jima, On the Waterfront), if the characters and scenes are not the creative product of a published work.
  • Even publication status plays a huge role: as adaptations of unproduced stage plays, the Epstein Twins and Howard Koch’s Casablanca won in Adapted in 1943 and David Seidler’s The King’s Speech won in 2010, but would have flopped categories if they’d been released in each other’s eras.

All these vagaries aside, it’s probably the most diverse and surprising category of the Big eight, and a project I dearly wish to engage, especially given my weakness in the category.

As opposed to the comparatively well-trodden Adapted Screenplay category, I have seen a mere 231 of the 360 nominees, or less than two-thirds.  That leaves a whopping 129 films to go, including fifteen winners, from the inaugural recipient, Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty, all the way up to Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game in 1992.  Original Screenplay also features the only year in which I’m 0-for-5 in a category: 1943, for which I have yet to see any of the heavily World War-themed nominees.  Among the other hundred and change, there are many that are burning holes on the list, from landmark works like Alun Owen’s A Hard Day’s Night or Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape to blindspots in the great Woody Allen’s oeuvre (Alice, Bullets over Broadway) and other works by mighty writer-directors like Preston Sturges (The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) and John Sayles (Lone Star).  I’m especially piqued, though, by the raft of war and veteran films that populated the category during and after World War II, from straight combat films like Robert Pirosh’s Battleground and Richard Murphy’s The Desert Rats to more unorthodox addresses of the topic, including Comden & Green’s It’s Always Fair Weather and Powell & Pressburger’s One of Our Aircraft Is Missing.

Unlike Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture overlap in Original went from slight in the early 1940s, to practically nonexistent through the early 1970s (only 15 out of 135 nominees from 1945-1972), to moderate (an average of around 2 per year) in the last four decades.  Only 105 of the 260 nominees in this category are Best Picture nominees, and since the founding of the category, never have all five nominees overlapped with the Best Picture slate (as Adapted did from 1940-1943, 1964, 2010, and 2012).

Filling the Best Picture rain shadow formed by Adapted Screenplay, the Writing Branch has embraced a range of filmmaking often excluded from the other big categories, most notably in their passionate and prescient endorsement of the postwar international art house: from Cesare Zavattini, et al’s Shoeshine and Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot’s Holiday to Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Last Year at Marienbad and Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, most years from 1945 to 1987 featured at least one foreign language nominee, including a stretch in the mid-1960s when half of the nominees (and two winners, Divorce Italian Style and A Man and a Woman) were in another language.

Even in English, though, the category has maintained room for a smorgasbord of alternatives to traditional prestige cinema, from virtuoso postmodern storytelling (Tom Stoppard, Terry Gilliam, and Christopher McKeown’s Brazil or Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s Memento), stridently independent voices (Gregory Nava’s El Norte and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing) and unabashed but whip-smart entertainment (Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s Back to the Future, or Ernest Lehman and Ben Hecht’s brace of Hitchcock films: North by Northwest and Notorious).

All in all, this might be my favorite category, a strange and startling minority report against the eternal hegemony of Adapted Screenplay, which has perennially represented the lion’s share of films made in Hollywood (and worldwide), as well as those nominated for Academy Awards.  I look forward to tackling this category one day, but I think 129 films is a bit unrealistic for one summer, so I’ll have to dedicate myself to this category at a later date.