February 21, 2013

OSCARS MINUS 3: Second Choice


The odds-on favorite for this year’s Best Director Oscar can’t win.

There’s little doubt at this point that if Ben Affleck had only been nominated for Best Director this year, he would have run away with the award.  That’s probably true even if the dynamics of the Best Picture race had been changed by his being un-snubbed, and Argo hadn’t become the favorite it now is.  Affleck’s combination of quality work, a terrific comeback story, and a willingness to press any and all award-voter flesh (not for nothing has he been a rumored political candidate) would have given him a great chance to take Director even if Argo itself lost.

But with Affleck being famously not-nominated, someone has to take home the award.  All of the nominees were behind the camera on Best Picture nominees (not the distinction it used to be, now that Picture has more nominees than any other category), which leaves a very open race.

The obvious choice is Steven Spielberg, whose Lincoln is generally considered the year’s likely runner-up and who is, well, Steven Spielberg.  He’s been down all sides of this road before:  in 1975, despite the fact that Jaws was built around one of the classic pieces of directing in screen history, the film was nominated for Picture, but he was ignored.  (This was repeated in 1985, when The Color Purple won 11 nominations–but not for Best Director.)  In 1977, the Directors branch of the Academy overcompensated for the Jaws slight, nominating Spielberg for his work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind even though the film itself was left out of the race.   And in 1998, Spielberg became one of the few directors to win an Oscar (for Saving Private Ryan) when his film lost Best Picture (to Shakespeare In Love).

As that record indicates, Spielberg is no sure thing here.  The Academy, for whatever mix of reasons (envy certainly enters into it), has had an ambivalent relationship with him for decades.  In addition, the disadvantage of Spielberg’s downplaying his usual directing mannerisms for very low-key work on Lincoln has been the sense for some that he didn’t really do all that much on the film, and its success was mainly due to its screenplay and cast.  This is the kind of argument that kept Sidney Lumet from ever winning an Oscar, although there’s a huge irony in its being aimed now at Spielberg, who for years was criticized as the poster child for flashy direction.

If not Spielberg, who?  Ang Lee seems the next obvious choice, because if you want showy direction, hoo boy, Life of Pi is your movie this year.  3D, so much CG that it bends the distinction between live action filmmaking and animation, a film story told for the most part through its visuals–Pi has it all.  Lee has won before, but Brokeback Mountain was long enough ago that he could easily be awarded again.

Then there’s David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook, which suffers–in Oscar terms–from the same “modest craftsman” tag as Lincoln (and is a comedy to boot), but on the other hand is one of the few films ever to have nominations in every one of the acting categories.  Remember–actors form the Academy’s single largest voting bloc.  Russell has also been around long enough to qualify as “owed,” and he has the not insubstantial weight of Harvey Weinstein behind him.  Michael Haneke, meanwhile, is one of the world’s most distinguished filmmakers, with multiple Cannes prizes to his credit, and Amour, while tiny in scale, is directed with enough tricky showmanship to make its director’s fingerprints evident.  The only nominee who’s certainly not winning is Benh Zeitlin, a lucky-to-be-there (especially with Affleck, Kathryn Bigelow and Tom Hooper all excluded) first-time filmmaker, who’ll gain credibility if he can follow up Beasts of the Southern Wild with something similarly impressive.

Our prediction is Spielberg, as a sort of half-guilty “sorry about that” from Academy members who are passing over Lincoln for Best Picture.

The oddsmakers in London (via Oddschecker) have Spielberg as a strong favorite, but Lee not far behind:

Steven Spielberg, LINCOLN:  1:4

Ang Lee, LIFE OF PI:  4:1

David O. Russell, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK:  14:1

Michael Haneke, AMOUR:  16:1


The thought here is that Russell and Haneke are more clustered with Lee, a notch below Spielberg, but any of the four have a legitimate shot on Sunday night.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."