Christopher Nolan’s brain-teasing blockbuster Inception has inspired zealous devotion, so it’s not surprising that when the British-American filmmaker was omitted from the best director category at this year’s Academy Awards, the news was greeted with fan outrage.
The fact that Inception was so clearly an "auteur" film – the work of a director with a singular vision – and that it is nominated for Best Picture does make it look like a strange oversight, if not a deliberate snub. But if Nolan was nominated, who of the five directors in the running should have been bumped? Surely not Darren Aronofsky, whose Black Swan was equally a work of (dark, demented) vision. And certainly not David Fincher, a bravura filmmaker who achieved the unthinkable with The Social Network – that is, making an engrossing drama about computer dweebs. David O. Russell (The Fighter) and the Coens (True Grit) are also strong contenders.
'[Inception] is more head than heart, and heart and sentimentality – more often than not – seem to win out when it comes to the Oscars.'— Director Ryan Redford
That leaves Tom Hooper, director of The King’s Speech. With a dozen nominations, did this feel-good U.K. import really need to get a best directing nod? The King’s Speech is a well-made production, but the filmmaker’s hand is seldom visible.
That might be the point. It helps to remember that Oscar nominees are voted on by their peers in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Perhaps fellow directors saw something in Hooper’s work – or something lacking in Nolan’s – that compelled them to include one and exclude the other on the shortlist.
Atom Egoyan is one Academy member who will rise to Hooper’s defence.
"I think The King’s Speech is very well directed," says the Canadian filmmaker, who received Oscar nominations for directing and writing The Sweet Hereafter in 1997. "Not only is it exceptionally cast, but there’s a visual approach that he took that was very suited to the material. There are a whole bunch of very specific compositional things I could talk about – that no one else would notice – that I think were very clever. I do think that there’s an attention to craft that fellow directors bring to the nominations."
That said, Egoyan is as bemused as anyone that Nolan didn’t make the cut. "Inception is a brilliant movie," he says, "but I do think it’s an exceptionally strong year for directors." He wonders if, in a year packed with powerful dramatic fare, Nolan got short shrift for helming a piece of sci-fi escapism.
Ryan Redford, the young Canadian filmmaker behind Oliver Sherman (in theatres now), has a more cynical theory. He says Inception is technically dazzling.
"But it’s more head than heart, and heart and sentimentality – more often than not – seem to win out when it comes to the Oscars." Redford and Egoyan point out the other worthy directors who didn’t end up on the shortlist, including Mike Leigh (Another Year), Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) and Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone). A nomination for a female director like Granik or Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) – both of whose films are up for best picture – might have signalled that Kathryn Bigelow’s landmark win for The Hurt Locker last year wasn’t an anomaly, but the start of some long-needed gender parity in Hollywood.
"Forget Nolan," says Ruba Nadda, director of the international romance Cairo Time. "I think the focus of the conversation should be why the heck more women are not nominated." She knows the answer. "It’s easy to show off as a director when you have a budget of $100 million – but for female directors, no one is going to take a chance on giving them an action movie to direct."
Nolan has no reason to feel spurned, given the history of the directing Oscar. Auteurs often get nominated, but they seldom triumph. Both Nadda and Redford deplore the fact that Martin Scorsese was up for the directing Oscar five times without winning. He finally took home the statuette for The Departed in 2007. Late cinema giants like Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini were frequent nominees, but had to settle for honorary Oscars at the end of their careers.
Even directors whose artistic vision is tied to commercially popular fare have had a hard time of it. Alfred Hitchcock, like Scorsese, was nominated five times without winning, before finally getting the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award – the gold watch of Oscars – at the age of 68.
'Forget Nolan. I think the focus of the conversation should be why the heck more women are not nominated.'— Ruba Nadda
Perhaps the most egregious oversight of all came in 1941, when the young upstart Orson Welles, whose breathtaking debut, Citizen Kane, still tops the lists of the greatest films ever made, lost to one of John Ford’s lesser – and yes, sentimental – movies, How Green Was My Valley. (Even more outrageous, Ford had already won the year previously for his much more deserving The Grapes of Wrath.)
There have been exceptions, though, as recently as 2008, when Danny Boyle copped the directing (and best-picture) Oscars for his dazzling dark horse Slumdog Millionaire. Egoyan says he votes for those sorts of small pictures. "I made a weird promise to myself when I became a member, which is that I would go for the underdog, because that’s how I got nominated."
Although unanimously hailed by the critics, Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter had neither big-name stars nor a promotional budget. How it ended up at the Oscars is still a bit of a mystery to him. It’s made him wonder if there isn’t a secret cabal that decides who’ll get the nod.
Egoyan recalls how, at the time his film was released, he was appearing at a public event at a Manhattan bookstore when a mysterious older man approached him. "He came up to me and said, ‘I’m a member of the Academy and you’re going to get nominated this year.’ I just thought, Yeah, right. And then we actually were nominated some weeks later.
"That has always haunted me," he says. "I wasn’t sure if he was just this quack, or if there might really be some strange club of older members who call each other and actively discuss the nominations and have some sway over them."
In the end, though, Egoyan lost out to another Canadian, James Cameron, for his box-office leviathan Titanic. But then the Oscars have always tended to favour ambitious blockbusters over small artistic gems. It makes sense if you consider who’s casting the ballots. The final votes are made by the entire Academy membership, a cross-section of the industry numbering more than 6,000, of which the director’s branch is only about five per cent. Members are more likely to vote for films they’ve worked on.
Since the biggest branch of the membership consists of actors, it might also explain why so many actor-directors (Robert Redford, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner) have ended up with the directing prize.
The Academy Awards are a democratic process, Egoyan says. "And like any democracy, it’s the best possible way, but it’s not perfect." As in many western democracies, to even be considered as a candidate, you need a lot of money behind you.
"It doesn’t matter how great your movie is," Nadda observes. "If your distributor isn’t willing to cough up cash for the parties, the screenings, the advertising for that Oscar campaign, you don’t have a chance. It’s about exposure."
Given all those considerations, it’s no wonder the Academy Awards leave film buffs gnashing their teeth every year. But Redford thinks the Oscars wouldn’t be the Oscars if they weren’t to some extent unfair. "Maybe that’s part of their masochistic appeal: it’s the almost inevitable disappointment and being able to gripe about it afterward."
The 83rd Academy Awards air Feb. 27.