Reflections and facts about winners of the Academy Award for Best Director. [1100 words here, followed by a table containing 26 rows of data.]
The 93rd Academy Awards ceremony took place last month. As in the majority of previous ceremonies the same film won for Best Picture and Best Director. For only the second time, the Best Director award went to a woman, Chloe Zhao for “Nomadland”. The only other female Best Director winner was Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker” (2009).
Most years, up to the awards held in 2008, the Best Director winner has been a white, male American. Since that year it has only happened once, when Damien Chazelle won for “La La Land” (2016). The Best Picture winner that year was “Moonlight”, as you may recall from the confusion surrounding the announcement of the award. “Moonlight” was directed by Barry Jenkins, an African American. To date no-one of black origin has won Best Director. Steve McQueen (from the UK) was nominated for “12 Years a Slave” (2013). It won Best Picture but Best Director that year went to the Mexican Alfonso Cuaron for “Gravity”.
I started drafting this piece at the start of the year, prompted by this question on “Who wants to be a millionaire?”
“Which of these has not directed a film that has won the Best Picture Oscar?”
Kevin Costner / Ben Affleck / Clint Eastwood / George Clooney
I knew that Costner and Eastwood had both won Best Director for films that had also won Best Picture, the former for “Dances with Wolves” (1990), the latter for “Unforgiven” (1992) and “Million Dollar Baby” (2004). Neither Affleck nor Clooney has won Best Director and I had to think through the Best Picture winners to work out which one it was: “Argo” (2012). It was directed by Affleck and had a producer credit for Clooney. The contestant was on 32k, having set her safety net there, and used the “Ask the Host” lifeline for this question. They agreed that the answer was George Clooney and she got to 64k.
This question made me realize that there are plenty of Best Picture winners where I was not sure of the director, like these, all since 2000:
Green Book (2018)
If you know who directed all of them, your film knowledge is better than mine. If not, there’s a list at the end of this piece showing all the Best Picture winners whose directors did not win Best Director in the same year, along with the directors’ names.
Before we get there, a few more reflections.
When I first looked at a list of Oscar winners, in the early 1980s, we were coming to the end of a run in which the Best Director winner had directed the Best Picture 22 years out of 24, between the awards for 1956 and 1981. From “Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) to “Ordinary People” (1980), these were the only Best Picture winners whose directors did not also win Best Director:
“In the Heat of the Night” (1967)
“The Godfather” (1972)
I knew, as you probably do, that the second of these was directed by Francis Ford Coppola. He went on to win Best Director for “The Godfather Part 2” (1974), which also won Best Picture. At the start of this year, after that question on “Who wants to be a millionaire?”, I couldn’t remember who directed “In the Heat of the Night”. It was Norman Jewison. The Best Director award that year went to Mike Nichols for “The Graduate”. Five years later Bob Fosse won for “Cabaret”. Jewison, who is 94, was nominated for Best Director in 1967, and on two other occasions [“Fiddler on the Roof” (1971) and “Moonstruck” (1987)], but has never won. He is also Canadian, and so far the only Canadian to win Best Director is James Cameron, for “Titanic” (1997).
In the 20 years after 1980, the years when I paid most attention to the Oscar ceremonies, there were four occasions when the Best Picture was directed by a non-American and the Best Director award went to an American, for a different film. It happened with these films:
“Chariots of Fire” (1981), directed by the Englishman Hugh Hudson; Warren Beatty won Best Director for “Reds”.
“Driving Miss Daisy” (1989), directed by Australian-born Bruce Beresford; Oliver Stone won Best Director for “Born on the 4th of July”.
“Shakespeare in Love” (1998), directed by Englishman John Madden; Steven Spielberg won Best Director for “Saving Private Ryan”.
“Gladiator” (2000), directed by Englishman Ridley Scott; Steven Soderberg won Best Director for “Traffic”.
To date none of the four non-American directors in this list (Hudson, Beresford, Madden, Scott) has won Best Director.
Since 2001 the pattern has been rather different. There have been several occasions where non-American directors have won Best Director in the same year that an American has directed the Best Picture. For example:
“Chicago” (2002), directed by Rob Marshall; Roman Polanski won Best Director for “The Pianist”.
“Argo” (2012), directed by Ben Affleck; Ang Lee won Best Director for “Life of Pi”.
“Spotlight” (2015), directed by Tom McCarthy; Alejandro G. Iñárritu won Best Director for “The Revenant”.
“Green Book” (2018) directed by Peter Farrelly; Alfonso Cuaron won Best Director for “Roma”.
Going right back to the first Academy Awards there have been 26 occasions when the director of the Best Picture did not win Best Director. It happened that year, with “Wings” (1928). Its director, William A Wellman, never won a Best Director award. Only three of the directors over-looked in the year they directed a Best Picture winner have won Best Director for other pictures:
Frank Lloyd directed “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935); John Ford won Best Director that year for “The Informer”, but Lloyd had already won the award twice, for “The Divine Lady” (1929) and “Cavalcade” (1933).
Vincente Minnelli directed “An American in Paris” (1951); George Stevens won Best Director that year for “A Place in the Sun”. Minnelli went on to win Best Director for “Gigi” (1958).
As noted above, Francis Ford Coppola directed “The Godfather” (1972); Bob Fosse won Best Director that year for “Cabaret”. Coppola went on to win Best Director for “The Godfather Part 2” (1974).
The directors who never won a Best Director award, but whose films won Best Picture, include Alfred Hitchcock, Cecil B DeMille and Laurence Olivier.
You will not be surprised to find that I have been recording much of the information used in this piece in a spreadsheet. To finish, here’s a filtered, cut-down portion of the workbook showing the years in which the Best Picture and Best Director went to different films .
|Year||Best Picture||Best Director (Film)||Director of Best Picture|
|2018||Green Book||Alfonso Cuaron (Roma)||Peter Farrelly|
|2016||Moonlight||Damien Chazelle (La La Land)||Barry Jenkins|
|2015||Spotlight||Alejandro G. Iñárritu (The Revenant)||Tom McCarthy|
|2013||12 Years a Slave||Alfonso Cuaron Gravity)||Steve McQueen|
|2012||Argo||Ang Lee (Life of Pi)||Ben Affleck|
|2005||Crash||Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain)||Paul Haggis|
|2002||Chicago||Roman Polanski (The Pianist)||Rob Marshall|
|2000||Gladiator||Steven Soderbergh (Traffic)||Ridley Scott|
|1998||Shakespeare In Love||Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan)||John Madden|
|1989||Driving Miss Daisy||Oliver Stone (Born on the Fourth of July)||Bruce Beresford|
|1981||Chariots of Fire||Warren Beatty (Reds)||Hugh Hudson|
|1972||The Godfather||Bob Fosse (Cabaret)||Francis Coppola|
|1967||In the Heat of the Night||Mike Nichols (The Graduate)||Norman Jewison|
|1956||Around the World in 80 Days||George Stevens (Giant)||Michael Anderson|
|1952||The Greatest Show on Earth||John Ford (The Quiet Man)||Cecil B DeMille|
|1951||An American in Paris||George Stevens (A Place in the Sun)||Vincente Minnelli|
|1949||All the King’s Men||Joseph L. Mankiewicz (A Letter to Three Wives)||Robert Rossen|
|1948||Hamlet||John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre)||Laurence Olivier|
|1940||Rebecca||John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath)||Alfred Hitchcock|
|1937||The Life of Émile Zola||Leo McCarey (The Awful Truth)||William Dieterle|
|1936||The Great Ziegfeld||Frank Capra (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town)||Robert Z Leonard|
|1935||Mutiny on the Bounty||John Ford (The Informer)||Frank Lloyd|
|1932||Grand Hotel||Frank Borzage (Bad Girl)||Edmund Goulding|
|1931||Cimarron||Norman Taurog (Skippy)||Wesley Ruggles (uncredited)|
|1928||Wings||Two awards: Comedy, Frank Borzage (Seventh Heaven) / Drama, Lewis Milestone (Two Arabian Nights)||William A Wellman|
|Year||Best Picture||Best Director (Film)||Director of Best Picture|