This is a moment of significance that really can’t be overlooked. At first I thought the story was that it was the first time in Oscar history that there had been five winners from foreign countries to win Best Director consecutively. So I did a bit of research and I found out several interesting factoids. The first is that many of the most important directors in film history came from other countries because, as we already knew, Hollywood was built by immigrants. The influence of non-American born directors is immeasurable from Frank Capra to Mike Nichols to Ang Lee and now all the way up to Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Inarritu. Only one other time in history were there five in a row and the names might surprise you. Mike Nichols for The Graduate and Franklin J. Schaffner for Patton are two thought to be very American. But Schaffner was actually born in Japan and Nichols was born in Germany. The previous five were, therefore:
Fred Zinnemann, A Man for All Seasons (born in Austria-Hungary)
Mike Nichols, The Graduate (Germany)
Carol Reed, Oliver (England)
John Schlesinger, Midnight Cowboy (England)
Franklin J. Schaffner, Patton (Japan)
The same way Mel Gibson was actually born in America but thought of as Australian, Nichols and Schaffner were thought to be Americans, with their sensibilities shaped by American culture. Though technically speaking, they hail from different countries.
Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Inarritu have the distinction of being the ONLY TWO directors who not only hail from Mexico, but the only directors who come from any Latin country at all, that makes them the only two Hispanic directors in all of Oscar history. When Sean Penn made a “green card” joke about Inarritu (even in jest) I don’t think it ultimately diminished the director, although it certainly could have, because Inarritu’s heartfelt speech about Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants upstaged it.
The only director, as far as I can tell, that made films about other cultures besides either British or American, to win significant awards would be Ang Lee, who is not married to any one culture as a filmmaker and expresses himself as brilliantly when directing Americans, British, Chinese or Indian. He won Best Director twice — once for a film about Americans in Brokeback Mountain and the second time for a film about an Indian character in Life of Pi. I think he should have won for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but Steven Soderbergh won that year for Traffic and it’s hard to argue with that. But Lee is mostly the exception to the rule. Most of the time, foreign-born directors are expected to make films about American culture to win Oscars. That includes Cuaron and Inarritu, the latter director having devoted most of his early career to films about his Mexican culture, and really, the global melting pot (Babel).
What it looks like to me is that America (and Hollywood) is the land of opportunity provided you get most of your encouragement in a different country, especially lately. Back when Frank Capra’s family immigrated you really could come up in Hollywood and do just fine making the kinds of films Hollywood wants you to make.
But Cuaron and Inarritu, for instance, would simply not get the same opportunities as Mexican-American directors were they born and raised here. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave became the first film by a black director to win Best Picture yet Hollywood and the Oscars have a shameful and embarrassing record for African-American filmmakers, shutting out Ava DuVernay this year, but Ryan Coogler and Spike Lee to name others. Those doors are not opened. For Mexican-American filmmakers it is even worse as they are not anywhere near the conversation, not yet anyway. Here’s hoping Cuaron and Inarritu’s win will inspire more notice on the young Americans making films about American culture, which is woefully in need of attention.
Only one woman has won and she happened to be the last American to win the Oscar for Directing. Last year 12 Years a Slave and Gravity split the awards, both had foreign born directors and the year before it might have been Ben Affleck as the sole American to win in the past five years.
People always think this is verboten topic to bring up because they assume me, being a white American, would be thinking “those damn foreigners are taking our jobs!” What I’m thinking instead is, why doesn’t the industry recognize the great American directors who keep hitting it out of the park year after year — with a kind of renaissance among them flourishing as we speak — at the time, the Oscars keep reaching outside to find the movie they like best and it tends to be the more traditional of the bunch.
As good as Birdman is, Richard Linklater should have won the award for Best Director for having built a self-defined career outside the Hollywood system, doing things with film no one else has ever done. Instead he was brutally shunned. I’m not sure why, for instance, David Fincher is not recognized with hundreds of awards yet considering the kind of work he’s been doing his entire career — Zodiac, The Social Network and Gone Girl for starters. The industry just brushes him aside when it comes to awards. Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Wes Anderson, Bennett Miller are just some of the names making this an exceptional time for American film – yet because the awards voters tend more towards traditional dramas (even if Birdman is an exception) are simply ignoring a wave of excellence that will be written about decades from now, with the industry looking very backwards.
Again, both Gravity and Birdman are exceptions to these rules, it must be said. Both films are highly experimental, visually exceptional and not your typical “Oscar movie.”
One thing you’ll notice looking back through the Best Director wins is that in the beginning the stories focused very strongly on films with female leads. That’s because many of the ticket buyers then, like now, were women. They simply had no other choice because those were the kinds of films being made. Women’s voices were strong in the business of Hollywood and in studios and at the Oscars because Hollywood respected the power of women moviegoers back then.
The other thing you’ll notice is the ongoing, inexplicable devotion to all things British, not just the directors who comprise the second largest group behind Americans, but also subject matter. Americans, it would seem, still looked to England for so much of their cultural references and it shows by how many of the films that won either Picture or Director went down. As I recall from reading Inside Oscar, this became a big deal only when British production companies threatened the five families who built and controlled Hollywood (and still do). It did not extend towards giving Alfred Hitchcock the prize for Best Directing — ever. The best directors in the world never won Oscars, in fact, so in many ways this is a pointless discussion overall, but perhaps a fun one.
I thought it might be fun to look at the directors, where they were born and what kinds of films they won Oscars for.
Note how often Director and Picture split in the early years and how at some point the director became much more powerful than the producer in determining Best Picture. We’re seeing more splits now with the preferential ballot and more than five nominees.
1927/28 (Dramatic) Frank Borzage (America) – 7th Heaven* (Wings)
1927/28 (Comedy) Lewis Milestone (Russia) – Two Arabian Knights*
1928/29 Frank Lloyd (England) – The Divine Lady* (The Broadway Melody)
1929/30 Lewis Milestone (Russia) – All Quiet on the Western Front (Cimarron)
1931/32 Frank Borzage (America) – Bad Girl* (Grand Hotel)
1932/33 Frank Lloyd (England) – Cavalcade
1934 Frank Capra (Italy) – It Happened One Night
1935 John Ford (America) – The Informer* (Mutiny on the Bounty)
1936 Frank Capra (Italy) – Mr. Deeds Goes to Town* (The Great Ziegfeld)
1937 Leo McCarey (America) – The Awful Truth* (The Life of Emile Zola)
1938 Frank Capra (Italy) – You Can’t Take It With You
1939 Victor Fleming (America) – Gone with the Wind
1940 John Ford (America) – The Grapes of Wrath* (Rebecca)
1941 John Ford (America) – How Green Was My Valley
1942 William Wyler (France) – Mrs. Miniver
1943 Michael Curtiz (Budapest, Austria-Hungary) – Casablanca
1944 Leo McCarey (America) – Going My Way
1945 Billy Wilder (Austria-Hungary) – The Lost Weekend
1946 William Wyler (France) – The Best Years of Our Lives
1947 Elia Kazan (Turkey) – Gentleman’s Agreement
1948 John Huston (America) – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre* (Hamlet)
1949 Joseph L. Mankiewicz (America)– A Letter to Three Wives* (All the King’s Men)
1950 Joseph L. Mankiewicz (America) – All About Eve
1951 George Stevens (America) – A Place in the Sun* (An American in Paris)
1952 John Ford (America) – The Quiet Man (The Greatest Show on Earth)
1953 Fred Zinnemann (Rzeszów, Austria-Hungary) – From Here to Eternity
1954 Elia Kazan (Constantinople, Ottoman Empire(now Istanbul, Turkey) – On the Waterfront
1955 Delbert Mann (America) – Marty
1956 George Stevens (America) – Giant (Around the World in 80 Days)
1957 David Lean (England) – The Bridge on the River Kwai
1958 Vincente Minnelli (America) – Gigi
1959 William Wyler (France) – Ben-Hur
1960 Billy Wilder (Austria-Hungary) – The Apartment
1961 Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins (America) – West Side Story
1962 David Lean (England) – Lawrence of Arabia
1963 Tony Richardson (England) – Tom Jones
1964 George Cukor (America) – My Fair Lady
1965 Robert Wise (America) – The Sound of Music
1966 Fred Zinnemann (America) – A Man for All Seasons
1967 Mike Nichols (Germany) – The Graduate (In the Heat of the Night)
1968 Carol Reed (England) – Oliver!
1969 John Schlesinger (England) – Midnight Cowboy
1970 Franklin J. Schaffner (Japan) – Patton
1971 William Friedkin (America) – The French Connection
1972 Bob Fosse (America) – Cabaret (The Godfather)
1973 George Roy Hill (America) – The Sting
1974 Francis Ford Coppola (America) – The Godfather Part II
1975 Miloš Forman (Czechoslovakia) – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
1976 John G. Avildsen (America) – Rocky
1977 Woody Allen (America) – Annie Hall
1978 Michael Cimino (America) – The Deer Hunter
1979 Robert Benton (America) – Kramer vs. Kramer
1980 Robert Redford (America) – Ordinary People
1981 Warren Beatty (America) – Reds (Chariots of Fire)
1982 Richard Attenborough (England) – Gandhi
1983 James L. Brooks (America) – Terms of Endearment
1984 Miloš Forman (Czechoslovakia) – Amadeus
1985 Sydney Pollack(America) – Out of Africa
1986 Oliver Stone (America) – Platoon
1987 Bernardo Bertolucci (Italy) – The Last Emperor
1988 Barry Levinson (America)– Rain Man
1989 Oliver Stone (America) – Born on the Fourth of July (Driving Miss Daisy)
1990 Kevin Costner (America) – Dances with Wolves
1991 Jonathan Demme (America) – The Silence of the Lambs
1992 Clint Eastwood (America) – Unforgiven
1993 Steven Spielberg (America) – Schindler’s List
1994 Robert Zemeckis (America) – Forrest Gump
1995 Mel Gibson (America) – Braveheart
1996 Anthony Minghella (England)– The English Patient
1997 James Cameron (Canadian) – Titanic
1998 Steven Spielberg (America) – Saving Private Ryan (Shakespeare in Love)
1999 Sam Mendes (England) – American Beauty
2000 Steven Soderbergh (America) – Traffic (Gladiator)
2001 Ron Howard (America) – A Beautiful Mind
2002 Roman Polanski (France) – The Pianist (Chicago)
2003 Peter Jackson (New Zealand) – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
2004 Clint Eastwood (America)– Million Dollar Baby
2005 Ang Lee (Taiwan)– Brokeback Mountain (Crash)
2006 Martin Scorsese (America) – The Departed
2007 Joel and Ethan Coen (America) – No Country for Old Men
2008 Danny Boyle (England)– Slumdog Millionaire
2009 Kathryn Bigelow (America) – The Hurt Locker
2010 Tom Hooper (England) – The King’s Speech
2011 Michel Hazanavicius (France) – The Artist
2012 Ang Lee (Taiwan) – Life of Pi (Argo)
2013 Alfonso Cuarón (Mexico) – Gravity (12 Years a Slave)
2014 Alejandro González Iñárritu (Mexico)– Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)