stage

Why they should kill Best Director

Hey Oscar, how can someone be the best director if they didn't make the best movie?

JAIME J. WEINMAN January 22 2007
stage

Why they should kill Best Director

Hey Oscar, how can someone be the best director if they didn't make the best movie?

JAIME J. WEINMAN January 22 2007

The Academy Award nominations haven’t been announced, but people are asking the usual questions: is this Martin Scorsese’s year at last? Will the Best Director award be a bad joke? For a category that doesn’t get as much publicity as the acting awards, Best Director is the most controversial—and the most incomprehensible.

Scorsese, who is likely to receive a nomination for his crime film The Departed, is on a long list of legendary U.S. directors who haven’t been honoured by the industry. Robert Altman, who died in December, never won anything besides a consolatory lifetime-achievement Oscar. Neither did Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock or Howard Hawks. If you make a list of the great directors of American films, you’re likely to find that the list of those who never won is more impressive than the roster of winners.

Meanwhile, some of the actual choices have been so bad that they make Marisa Tomei’s 1993 acting Oscar look sane. In 1991, a bunch of legitimate directors—including Scorsese, for Goodfellas—were beaten by Kevin Costner, for his self-directed vanity project Dances With Wolves. Damien Bona, co-author of the book Inside Oscar, says that Academy members tend to vote for whatever is trendy. This leads to victories that seem inexplicable now—like Costner over Scorsese, or James Cameron for getting bad performances out of good actors in Titanic. “Nobody in the industry thought it was odd that Kevin Costner would win Best Director over Scorsese. It’s only when you look back that the choice seems really strange,” Bona says.

Another factor influencing the Best Director selections is that since Robert Redford won for Ordinary People 26 years ago, many of these awards have gone to famous actors who have turned to directing: not only Costner, but more legitimate actor-directors like Mel Gibson, Warren Beatty, Ron Howard and Clint Eastwood have taken home the honour. Bona says that Academy voters, especially actors, are galvanized by successful crossovers: “When they see one of their own branching out, they’re more impressed than those of us on the outside would be.”

Another problem with Best Director is built into the nature of the honour: there are no real criteria for identifying what the award is for. The awards for acting, writing, and makeup are for specific jobs. But a director doesn’t have one job; he or she supervises the work all those other people do. And since the Best Director prize is completely separate from Best Picture—which goes only to the producers—it always brings up the question: how can someone be the best director if he or she didn’t make the best movie?

When the Academy Awards began in the late ’20s, it made sense to give a separate award for directing. “For many years,” Bona explains, “the producer was seen as the prime creative force in the industry.” So the main award was for producers; directors were rewarded for carrying out producers’ wishes. But today, directors are more powerful and most producers do little more than raise the money. Which means, incongruously, that the biggest award on Oscar night often goes to half a dozen people you’ve never heard of, but not to the creator of the film. Not only does the Best Director award make the Academy Awards a joke; separating it from Best Picture has made them an anachronism.

The separation has one advantage: it allows voters to honour a director’s artistry even if they can’t bring themselves to vote for his film. Bona compares this to the first few years of the Oscars, when there were separate awards for Best Picture and Best Artistic Achievement. “It’s almost as if the Academy, these days, is giving Best Picture to what they see as the best overall production, and giving Best Director to what they see as the most artistically satisfying.” That could explain the times when the Picture and Director awards have gone to different films. Last year, Best Picture went to Paul Haggis’s ultra-preachy Crash, but Best Director went to Ang Lee for the arty Brokeback Mountain. Best Director is becoming a consolation prize for the movie that voters really think is the best.

One thing will never change, though, even if Scorsese wins this year: everyone will have a favourite director who never won. Bona’s own choice is Blake Edwards (The Pink Panther), who has never even been nominated. But he adds that even the Academy gets it right sometimes. “My favourite director of all time is John Ford, and he won four times, so I can’t complain.”