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February 22, 2007

From Here to Obscurity: Eight Oscar Winning Directors

norman .jpg

There is a certain logic to the idea that winning an Academy Award is a vindication of talent. Most of the past winners do have memorable careers with work of substantial quality. In terms of directors, John Ford, usually acclaimed as director most often admired by other filmmakers, had four Oscars. More recently, Steven Spielberg can point to two Best Director awards to compliment his commercial success. On the downside, being an Oscar winning director does not always mean that you will be a revered filmmaker, thought of as highly as such Oscar losers as Joseph Von Sternberg, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock or even J. Lee Thompson. While debating the merits of whether Martin Scorsese should win an Oscar, consider the following eight directors, in chronological order, who prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that winning isn't everything, and sometimes it's enough to be a contender:

1. Norman Taurog. I'm not sure if anyone has seen Clarence Brown's A Free Soul lately, while Wesley Ruggles' Cimmaron is considered a museum piece. That leaves Jackie Cooper's uncle (seen above) winning over Lewis Milestone for The Front Page, and more damning, Joseph Von Sternberg for Morocco. The film we still watch begins with a brief girl on girl smootch and ends with Marlene Dietrich chasing Gary Cooper in the desert, wearing high heels. Taurog's future contributions to the cinema lead to his being house director for producer Hal Wallis making the most routine films starring Jerry Lewis and Elvis Presley. Taurog also has the distinction of directing a film that the British magazine "Films and Filming" pointed out was the first time Buster Keaton was not funny.

2. Frank Lloyd. As one of the founders of the Academy, Frank Lloyd was bound to receive an Oscar for something. Except for Mutiny on the Bounty and possiby Cavalcade, Lloyd's career seems unmemorable, and is in the shadows of his peers, George Cukor and Frank Capra.

3. Delbert Mann. Here is a director who started in television and ended in television. Mann won his Oscar for remaking a drama that was originally on television. One of the few films he directed that demands re-examination is The Outsider, about Ira Hayes, the Native American hero of Iwo Jima. Incredibly, Mann beat out David Lean, John Sturges, and Elia Kazan. The fifth nominee was Joshua Logan, for his best film, Picnic.

4. Wiliam Friedkin. By the time he made The Guardian, William Friedkin was cruising into obscurity. One can only guess what Friedkin's career would have been like had he not married Paramount production chief, Sherry Lansing. Still, it's sad when after thirty year, advertisements boast of films being by "the director of The French Connection". Among the directors Friedkin beat, John Schlesinger had already won for Midnight Cowboy, Norman Jewison recieved a Lifetime Achievement Award, and Stanley Kubrick is remembered as being one of the best directors to not win an Oscar. For some, it may be a small favor that Peter Bogdanovich didn't win either. A bit of coincidence (or not) is Friedkin's Howard Hawks connection. Friedkin use to date Hawks' daughter Kitty. Wife Sherry Lansing is remembered as one of the stars of Hawks' last film, Rio Lobo.

5. John G. Avildsen. A Fine and Private Place and Inferno are apt descriptions of where the former Rocky director seems to be lately. That latter film was even signed with a pseudonym. Even Sylvester Stallone recently went on record to put down Rocky V. Avildsen probably hoped he had The Power of One but discussion of his films would likely last Eight Seconds. Beating Lina Wertmuller to Oscar glory is nothing to brag about. More questionable is that anyone thought Avildsen was more worthy than Alan Pakula, Sidney Lumet or Ingmar Bergman. Having Best Picture nominees was the consolation prize for two young directors, Hal Ashby and Martin Scorsese.

6. Michael Cimino. The last film Michael Cimino made, The Sunchasers, was released in 1996. Cimino will be remembered more for bringing down United Artists for the overlong, very expensive Days of Heaven. According to IMDb, Cimino is writing novels which means not being responsible for other people's money and having complete artistic control. While the Deer Hunter director beat out Alan Parker, he also was considered better than past winner Woody Allen, and future winner Warren Beatty who was nominated with Buck Henry. Fifth director nominee Hal Ashby won an Oscar for editing In the Heat of the Night. With a filmography that included The Last Detail, Shampoo and Being There, Ashby was nominated once as director, for Coming Home.

7. Richard Attenborough. In fairness, I thought Gandhi was a pretty good throwback to the all star epics of years past. It's just too bad that Nicole Fosse's father wasn't the one to film A Chorus Line. Cry Freedom was a return to form, but the Magic seems to have vanished. Attenborough's last film, Grey Owl never was released theatrically in the U.S., and a new film, Closing the Ring may also have that fate. Fellow nominees that year, Sidney Pollack and Steven Spielberg were future Oscar winners, while the verdict on Sidney Lumet would be a Lifetime Achievement consolation prize. Fifth nominee Wolfgang Petersen used Das Boot to launch a Hollywood career.

8. Barry Levinson. Here is a director who is consistently inconsistent. On the plus side are Wag the Dog, Diner, Tin Men and Liberty Heights. On the debit side are Envy, Sphere, Jimmy Hollywood and a slew of films with Robin Williams. Rain Man is not even Levinson's best film. And who thought Warren Beatty could play a Jewish gangster? We can thank Levinson for making sure Alan Parker did not win for Mississippi Burning, and Mike Nichols didn't need a second Oscar (or, I would argue, a first one either). A more courageous Academy would have given the Oscar to Martin Scorsese for The Last Temptation of Christ. A more loving Academy would have recognized the career of seventy-eight year of Charles Crichton.

Posted by peter at February 22, 2007 03:33 AM


Obviously I know that both of these guys have won before, but I wanted to mention both Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino (who I don't think has ever actually won for director), whom still continue to have ups and downs and interesting films despite wins. I still think Tarantino deserves to win another one somewhere, someway, but there are plenty of directors who deserve one. Good list and I'll definitely have to look into the work of a lot of these. Just because not everything won an Oscar doesn't mean it's exceptional work!

Posted by: Alex at February 25, 2007 07:05 AM