Oscars: Another split between Best Picture and Best Director?

Before the academy expanded the Best Picture race in 2010, the winner of that award almost always picked up the Best Director prize as well. But since then, these two awards have aligned at only seven of the dozen ceremonies. We thought that we’d see another case of double-dipping this year with Jane Campion winning for both directing and producing “The Power of the Dog.” But now it looks like “CODA” will claim the top prize of Best Picture, with Campion consoling herself with being the third woman to win Best Director.

Why the change?

When the decision was made to increase the number of nominees for Best Picture, it was also decided to bring back the preferential ballot that had been used by the academy until the mid 1940s. The rationale was that by ranking the nominees, the winner would be the film that had the broadest level of support. But Best Director, along with the other 21 races, is decided by a popular vote.

So while voters simply check one nominee in those other races, when it comes to Best Picture they are asked to rank all the nominees. If one contender garners more than 50% of the first-place votes, it wins. If, however, no nominee crosses that threshold, the film with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, with its ballots being reapportioned to the second-place pick. This process continues until one nominee reaches 50% plus one vote.

With two different voting systems, it’s easy to understand how this split happens so often. Indeed, it was a fairly common phenomenon between 1934 and 1945, when the Best Picture winner was first chosen by a preferential ballot. “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1936), “The Great Ziegfeld” (1937), “The Life of Emile Zola” (1938), and “Rebecca” (1941) all won Best Picture but their directors lost to John Ford (“The Informer”), Frank Capra (“Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”) Leo McCarey (“The Awful Truth” and Ford (“The Grapes of Wrath”) respectively.

The two women to have won Best Director — Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker” and Chloe Zhao for “Nomadland” — bracket the current era of the preferential ballot. Both saw their films named the Best Picture of the year.

Alfonso Cuaron won Best Director for “Roma” in 2019 only to see his film eclipsed in the top race by “Green Book.” That had happened to Cuaron in 2014 as well when he won for “Gravity” but Best Picture went to “12 Years a Slave.” And while Ang Lee (“Life of Pi”), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“The Revenant”) and Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”) all won the Best Director Oscar, their films lost to “Argo” (2013), “Spotlight” (2016) and “Moonlight” (2017) respectively.

Inarritu also won Best Director for a film that took the top Academy Award: “Birdman” (2015). As with “The Revenant,” this was a bravura directorial achievement and had strong support throughout the creative categories.  Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water,” 2018) and Bong Joon-ho (“Parasite,” 2020) also prevailed in both categories.

In the early days of the Oscars in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s it wasn’t uncommon for the two categories to be won by different films but in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1990s it only happened one time each decade. The trend began to reverse itself in the 2000s, with three of the 10 directing winners not matching Best Picture.

1928-29: Frank Lloyd (“The Divine Lady”), “The Broadway Melody”

1930-31: Norman Taurog (“Skippy”), “Cimmaron”
1931-32: Frank Borzage (“Bad Girl”), “Grand Hotel”
1935: John Ford (“The Informer”), “Mutiny on the Bounty”
1936: Frank Capra (“Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”), “The Great Ziegfeld”
1937: Leo McCarey (“The Awful Truth”), “The Life of Emile Zola”

1940: John Ford (“The Grapes of Wrath”), “Rebecca”
1948: John Huston (“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”), “Hamlet”
1949: Joseph Mankiewicz (“A Letter to Three Wives”), “All the King’s Men”

1951: George Stevens (“A Place in the Sun”), “An American in Paris”
1952: John Ford (“The Quiet Man”), “The Greatest Show on Earth”
1956: George Stevens (“Giant”), “Around the World in 80 Days”

1967: Mike Nichols (“The Graduate”), “A Man for All Seasons”

1972: Bob Fosse (“Cabaret”), “The Godfather”

1981: Warren Beatty (“Reds”), “Chariots of Fire”
1989: Oliver Stone (“Born on the Fourth of July”), “Driving Miss Daisy”

1998: Steven Spielberg (“Saving Private Ryan”), “Shakespeare in Love”

2000: Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”), “Gladiator”
2002: Roman Polanski (“The Pianist”), “Chicago”
2005: Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”), “Crash”

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