The award for Best Picture often corresponds with a filmmaker voters feel is long overdue for recognition. Look no further than the victory for "The Departed" in 2006: Martin Scorsese had been nominated five times for Best Director, losing for "Raging Bull" (1980), "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988), "GoodFellas" (1990), "Gangs of New York" (2002), and "The Aviator" (2004).
The man whom many consider to be the greatest director working had been criminally overlooked by the academy over the years, and his win for "The Departed" was seen as both a way of honoring the filmmaker for one of his best works and making up for lost time as well.
That wasn't the first time the academy tried to make good with a celebrated director: Steven Spielberg was snubbed for years before winning Oscars for "Schindler’s List" (1993) and "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), having lost for "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977), "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), and "E.T." (1982).
George Cukor lost four times -- "Little Women" (1933), "The Philadelphia Story" (1944), "A Double Life" (1947) and "Born Yesterday" (1950) -- before finally winning for "My Fair Lady" (1964).
And Clint Eastwood’s Best Picture and director wins for "Unforgiven" (1992) marked not only the first time he had won an Oscar, but the first time he’d ever been nominated.
That is not to say that the academy always does right by its most talented filmmakers. Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman and Sidney Lumet were all nominated multiple times without winning. David Lynch, Ridley Scott, Peter Weir and David Fincher have all seen their nominations come to nothing.
A lot depends on popularity and sentiment and, unfortunately for these fine filmmakers, those two points never quite aligned. In the past two years, Best Picture has not depended on a director getting his due, as witnessed by the wins for Tom Hooper ("The King’s Speech") and Michel Hazanavicius ("The Artist"). In both cases, the wins had more to do with the Academy’s love for the films, not necessarily for their directors.
This year finds a wide variety of overdue directors vying for their first Oscar. What’s unique about this year’s crop of overdue directors is their relative freshness: unlike Scorsese, Spielberg, Cukor or Eastwood, these are filmmakers who have all come into prominence within the last twenty years. They are still, in a sense, growing in stature, and an Oscar win will only help cement their legacy.
First there is Paul Thomas Anderson, in the running this year with "The Master." Anderson has been nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, director, and screenplay nominations for "There Will Be Blood" (2007), and screenplay nominations for "Magnolia" (1999) and "Boogie Nights" (1997). The year of "There Will Be Blood," Anderson had the bad luck to go up against the Coen brothers, themselves overdue directors, and "No Country for Old Men" beat Anderson in every category.
Now with "The Master," Anderson is hoping for goodwill from the Academy, yet the film is more polarizing and obtuse than "There Will Be Blood" was, so a Best Picture win seems unlikely. What does seem likely, though, is an Original Screenplay win, and that could be the only place where the academy chooses to honor Anderson. He leads that race with odds of 11 to 4 according to our Experts while he is in fifth place for helming with odds of 10 to 1.
Often times, a win for screenwriting is where the academy chooses the reward its more adventurous auteurs. Just ask Quentin Tarantino, who won Best Original Screenplay for "Pulp Fiction" in 1994 but lost both Best Picture and director that year to "Forrest Gump." In 2009, Tarantino was again nominated for writing and directing "Inglourious Basterds," only to lose those races to "The Hurt Locker," a loss that nevertheless saw Kathryn Bigelow become the first woman ever to win best director. This year Tarantino is back with "Django Unchained', and if the film is good enough, Harvey Weinstein could build a strong enough campaign around Tarantino being overdue for a best director win.
Weinstein has his hands full with three overdue filmmakers this year: Tarantino, Anderson, and David O. Russell, whose "Silver Linings Playbook' may be the most academy friendly film of the bunch, even if the director himself is not. Russell received his first nomination for "The Fighter" in 2010, a bid that seemed like a welcoming back for a filmmaker who had garnered a reputation for difficulty. Now Russell is on a roll, and "Silver Linings Playbook" looks poised to become a huge hit with voters. However, academy members may view the small-scale film as more an achievement in acting and writing than in directing. If so, like Anderson, Russell may reap his reward in the Adapted Screenplay category where he leads with odds of 14 to 5 rather than for Best Director where he is in fourth place with odds of 6 to 1.
One overdue filmmaker looking for his first directing nomination this year is Wes Anderson, whose "Moonrise Kingdom" garnered Anderson some of the best reviews of his career. Anderson has previously been nominated for writing "The Royal Tenenbaums" (2001) and for the animated feature for "Fantastic Mr. Fox" (2009). Yet Anderson may find himself left out of an already crowded directing field even if "Moonrise Kingdom" is nominated for Best Picture, and an original screenplay nom may yet again be his reward.
Christopher Nolan has been overdue for Oscar attention for so long that many thought a nomination for "The Dark Knight Rises" was a given before the film even opened. Although Nolan has been nominated for writing "Memento" (2001) and "Inception" (2010), he has never been nominated for Best Director, despite three DGA nods in the last decade and a Best Picture bid for "Inception."
When "The Dark Knight" was snubbed in 2008, the outcry was so great that the academy changed the way it voted for best picture to allow more blockbuster films to be considered. However, the awards buzz surrounding "The Dark Knight Rises" isn’t as strong as that of its predecessor, so despite having produced another exceptionally well-made film, Nolan may once again find himself shut out.
Finally, there is Ben Affleck, who, at 12 to 5, is the frontrunner for "Argo" which also leads the Best Picture race. Affleck is quickly becoming a major filmmaker in the George Clooney mold, and "Argo" displays tremendous growth for the director of "The Town" (2010) and "Gone, Baby Gone" (2007).
The academy certainly loves to reward actors-turned-directors (Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, Ron Howard, and, of course, Clint Eastwood). If "Argo" holds strong through the coming months, Affleck may find himself holding his second Oscar, having previously won Best Original Screenplay for "Good Will Hunting" (1997).
Also among those in the mix are many past winners -- Tom Hooper, Spielberg, Ang Lee, Kathryn Bigelow and Peter Jackson -- who are all vying for their second or third wins in this category. It’s still too early to tell which five filmmakers will make the cut, but one thing is for certain: the year of the director is back.