Revisiting Steven Spielberg’s 8 Best Director Oscar races, from ‘Close Encounters’ to ‘West Side Story’

One of the few certainties going into the 2023 awards season seems to be that Steven Spielberg will receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Director for his acclaimed semi-autobiographical drama “The Fabelmans,” starring Michelle Williams, Paul Dano and Seth Rogen. (He’s currently #1 in Gold Derby’s predictions.) Critics have been raving about the film since its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, with Katie Walsh in Tribune News Service saying it’s “a playful, honest, and ultimately gracious childhood memoir that derives its universal lessons from its specificity,” and Brian Lowry from writing that “it’s a deeply personal chronicle from one of the cinema’s greatest talents.” With the filmmaker poised to become front and center in the upcoming awards season, let’s revisit all eight of Steven Spielberg’s Best Director Oscar races.

His first Academy Award win came in 1994 when he claimed Best Director and Best Picture for his most celebrated film “Schindler’s List,” starring Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes. After decades of never going home with a competitive Oscar, this was clearly his year, with both “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List” from 1993 over-performing at the box office and with the nation’s critics. From the beginning of the awards season, Spielberg won every major directing award, including BAFTA, DGA and the Golden Globe. His only real competition that season was Jane Campion for “The Piano” — the film won the Academy Awards for Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay and was nominated for Best Picture — but really, nobody was beating Spielberg for Best Director that awards season. He was incredibly overdue, and his film “Schindler’s List” was nominated for 12 Oscars, ultimately winning seven. When Spielberg took the stage after Clint Eastwood announced his name as the Best Director winner of 1993, listen closely and you can hear Samuel L. Jackson in the audience shout, “It’s about time!” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Spielberg’s second Academy Award win for Best Director came just five years later in 1999 when he claimed the gold trophy for “Saving Private Ryan,” his beloved World War II film starring Tom Hanks and Matt Damon. Since Spielberg had already won for “Schindler’s List,” he might not have been a shoo-in for the award, but the competition in the directing category that year was light. John Madden was the only real competition since his film “Shakespeare in Love” took the Best Picture prize in a shocker victory. In addition, after Spielberg’s previous drama “Amistad” from 1997 came up short on Oscar nominations morning with only a handful of nominations, “Saving Private Ryan” received 11 Academy Award nods and swept Best Director and Best Picture throughout the awards season, winning at DGA and the Golden Globes. After Kevin Costner announced his name as the directing winner at the Academy Awards, Spielberg said on stage, “Am I allowed to say I really wanted this?” You could tell this award meant a lot to him, the film a tribute to his father.

The famous filmmaker came up short the other six times he was nominated in this category. Spielberg’s first loss came in 1978 when he was nominated for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” a critical and commercial science fiction hit. Unfortunately his film didn’t make it into the Best Picture category, and he was up against George Lucas for the even bigger box office blockbuster “Star Wars,” as well as the eventual winner Woody Allen, whose “Annie Hall” became the consensus favorite of the season, also winning Best Actress for Diane Keaton and Best Picture.

His second loss arrived in 1982 when he was nominated for “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” another commercial hit, this one of the action-adventure genre. Unlike “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” this film did make it into the Best Picture category, but there might have been some genre bias. Indeed, academy voters gave the director prize to Warren Beatty for his more awards-friendly epic drama, “Reds.”

Spielberg’s greatest chance at a Best Director Oscar yet came a year later in 1983, when he was nominated for “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” a beloved box office behemoth that earned nine Academy Award nominations and won the Golden Globe for Best Drama Film. But that was the year of “Gandhi,” which swept with eight Academy Award wins, including Best Actor for Ben Kingsley, Best Director for Richard Attenborough and Best Picture. As popular as “E.T.” was with audiences and critics, academy voters ultimately chose to go with a more prestige drama.

Following his two aforementioned victories, his fourth loss came in 2006 when he made it into the final five for “Munich,” his dark, acclaimed drama starring Eric Bana and Daniel Craig that came out the same year as his “War of the Worlds.” Of all his Best Director nominations, this one I would argue he had the least chance in winning, as the competition was too fierce that season with Ang Lee sweeping almost every major directing prize for “Brokeback Mountain.”

Spielberg’s best shot at the Best Director Academy Award since 1999 was likely for his work on “Lincoln,” the celebrated period drama starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones. The 2012 film received some of the best reviews of his career. Dana Stevens in Slate called the film “as quiet, contemplative, and austere as anything Spielberg has ever done.” Ben Affleck, the director frontrunner that awards season for “Argo,” won the Golden Globe Award and at DGA, but he surprisingly missed in the directing category on Oscar nominations morning, which set the stage for Spielberg possibly picking up his third directing trophy. Alas, Ang Lee beat Spielberg for a second time, winning for “Life of Pi.”

Spielberg’s most recent Best Director Oscar loss came earlier this year for “West Side Story,” but he was never going to beat Jane Campion for “The Power of the Dog,” who swept the directing category throughout the 2022 awards season. However, nearly 25 years since Spielberg’s last Academy Award win, it looks like he’ll be back for “The Fabelmans,” potentially not only in Best Director but also in Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. Can he win all three? Only time will tell, but judging on the enthusiastic reviews, his chances look good, at least for Best Director. Peter Travers (ABC) calls his new film “a personal best from Spielberg,” and Peter Howell (Toronto Star) says it’s “sure to resonate with movie lovers and awards bestowers everywhere.” If you’ve been waiting for another Best Director Oscar win for Steven Spielberg, 2023 just might be your year.

PREDICT the 2023 Oscar nominees through January 24

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