1. He really does deserve it.
If you ask yourself to pick the nominee in this category whose work can truly be described as the best achievement in directing, whose name would you select? I honestly believe that many people would have to say Ang Lee for “Life of Pi.”
Turning the acclaimed novel into a live-action feature film was widely thought to be impossible by most critics. How could the larger-than-life tiger, a central character in the book, be accurately (and believably) presented on the screen? How could the thoughts of the young hero carry the film for long periods of time? And where would they find a teenage Indian actor to play such a physically demanding and mentally exhausting role?
Not only did Lee succeed on all fronts, he made “Pi” the most visually stunning cinematic experience of the year. Academy members are smart, and they’ll surely take all of these factors into account as they mark their ballots.
2. There’s currently no clear-cut favorite.
Now that Ben Affleck has won the DGA and “Argo” seems headed for Best Picture victory, the directing race is completely wide open.
Many consider Steven Spielberg to be out front, but is he really? While “Lincoln” does have more nominations than any other picture, it’s performed quite poorly at all of the pre-Oscar awards. Spielberg has won the directing trophy twice before, for films which either won Best Picture (“Schindler’s List”) or came very close (“Saving Private Ryan.”)
If voters were split between “Argo” and “Lincoln” for Best Picture it’s conceivable that they might give Spielberg Best Director as a consolation prize. However, since “Lincoln” may not be the second or even third choice film of most Academy members, don’t assume that he’s at the top of their lists for directing honors.
3. He may get the most support from the tech branches.
While “Life of Pi” was expected to be a major Oscar player, most of us were caught off guard by its strong 11-nomination showing. The only craft areas it missed out on were costume design and makeup and hairstyling, which it probably never had a chance at.
If the various technical branches of the Academy were this impressed, it’s conceivable that they’ll vote for Lee in large numbers. Of course, “Life” does lack recognition in the acting categories – which leads me to my next point.
4. The Academy actors’ vote may be divided.
The one major advantage that Spielberg’s “Lincoln” would appear to have over Lee’s “Pi” is its three acting nominations. Won’t actors want to vote for someone who brought out magnificent performances from its cast members?
If so, what about David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” and its Oscar-nominated quartet? Russell will likely receive more votes than we realize; might they come at Spielberg’s expense? The last film to earn bids in all four acting categories (1981’s “Reds”) did in fact win the directing Oscar (for Warren Beatty.)
Interestingly enough, Spielberg was also nominated that year (for “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) and there was Best Picture/Director split as “Chariots of Fire” pulled off a major upset. If Spielberg fails to win the actors’ vote by a substantial margin and he loses with the tech branches, it’s hard to imagine his final tally being higher than Lee’s.
5. The Academy may enjoy seeing a surprise here.
With victories by “Argo,” Daniel Day-Lewis and Anne Hathaway all looking like done deals, I honestly believe that some Academy members may be secretly hoping for shockers in other categories.
It’s not that they’ll vote for someone who doesn’t deserve an award. Rather, in categories where they view two or more individuals as being equally deserving, they might be inclined to go with the underdog. Why not?
Remember, these are people who actually make films. They love a good plot twist as much as the rest of us. Ten years ago they named Roman Polanski Best Director for “The Pianist” over both Rob Marshall for “Chicago” and Martin Scorsese for “Gangs of New York.” Two years before that they went with Steven Soderbergh for “Traffic” over the widely favored Lee himself for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” “How did Steven beat Ang?” we questioned ourselves.
If the Oscar gods have a sense of humor, it’s “how did Ang beat Steven?” that we’ll be asking come Feb. 24.