It used to be a brave – or foolish – thing for an Oscar prognosticator to pick separate winners for Best Picture and Best Director. Academy members, with rare exception, gave directors credit for the perceived quality of their movies by voting for both.
When the awards were split, as they were when Steven Spielberg won Best Director while his movie “Saving Private Ryan” lost Best Picture to “Shakespeare in Love” or when Ang Lee failed to parlay his directing Oscar for “Brokeback Mountain” to a Best Picture win, it seemed a minor scandal. The recent exceptions to the rule – Alfonso Cuaron winning Best Director for “Gravity” while Best Picture went to “12 Years a Slave” and “Argo” winning Best Picture after its director Ben Affleck was left off the directing ballot altogether – seem to have emboldened Oscar handicappers to think of this year’s ballots for director and picture as unrelated achievements.
Of the 22 Gold Derby analysts, 14 are predicting a Best Director win for George Miller while none of them thinks his “Mad Max: Fury Road” will win Best Picture. Six of my colleagues think Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu will win the directing prize and none of them thinks his “The Revenant” will win Best Picture. Only Sasha Stone (Awards Daily) and I have paired our director and picture selections. Fourteen others agree with me that “Spotllight” will win Best Picture, six back Stone’s “The Big Short” and one lonely voice cries out for “The Revenant,” though that person picked Miller to win for directing.
It’s the same story on other prognosticated Oscar ballots where Miller is the prohibitive favorite as director while “Spotlight” and “The Big Short” top the Best Picture ballots. The question now is whether academy voters are as confused as we are. Will they look at their ballots for Picture and Director and treat them as if they had nothing to do with each other? And, given the academy’s large block of senior citizens, will enough of them share the passion for “Mad Max” that critics and other fandom contingents have shown to push Miller onto the Oscar stage?
The winner of the Directors Guild Award for feature film being announced Saturday could clear the air … a little. The DGA has had a long history of predicting the Academy Awards, but the DGA is a very different critter from the academy. It’s a huge organization with only a small percentage of feature film directors who are also Oscar voters, so a likely DGA win for Miller would be no guarantee of an Academy Award to follow.
On the other hand, a DGA for McKay, McCarthy or Inarritu would be a solid indicator of where Oscar voters may go. It would be a signal that whatever one thinks of the virtuoso direction of the action in “Mad Max,” the nuanced direction of “The Big Short” and “Spotlight,” both of which feature superb ensemble casts and subjects of great significance, and the aesthetic direction and authentic performances of “The Revenant” are more worthy.
Out of the 13 experts making DGA predictions at Gold Derby, nine pick Miller to prevail, two say Scott, one opts for Inarritu and one for McKay. I think part of the betting on the 71-year-old Miller has to do with the relatively unimpressive resumes of “Spotlight” director Tom McCarthy and “The Big Short’s” Adam McKay, along with Inarritu’s “Birdman” having taken the top two awards last year. No director has had consecutive wins since Joseph L. Mankiewicz did it with “A Letter to Three Wives” and “All About Eve” in 1949 and 1950.
The voters are not supposed to think that way. They’re supposed to vote for the best work released during the previous calendar year and I believe the vast majority do just that. So the question we should ask ourselves, as they will, is this: if the director is still the supervising creator of a movie, how does he get an Oscar and his movie not?
A Miller win would fly against all conventions. It’s a summer action movie, a reboot of a franchise and it has no nominations for acting or screenplay. It will win a slew of technical awards, which it should, but not many people believe it will win Best Picture. So, why – oh, why? – would Miller be voted Best Director?
Clearly, the technological advancements in computer animation have caused a sea change in the thinking of critics and the academy. In winning, Miller would take his place alongside Cuaron, who won for the sci-fi thriller “Gravity” in 2013 and Lee, who won for the fantasy film “Life of Pi” in 2012. That is two wins for directors whose technological wonders lost Best Picture. A Miller win would make it three in seven, and if James Cameron weren’t so overtly self-adoring, he likely would’ve won the director award for his CGI spectacle “Avatar” in 2009, making it four out of eight.
It used to be enough to honor outstanding action films in the technical categories while reserving the Big Awards at the end the Oscar show for movies that mattered as much for content as production. Fingers crossed, that will happen this year.
Photo Credit: Charlize Theron and George Miller; Warner Bros.