This year we, have dipped into fantasy, and unshakable reality. We have come of age, confronted death, sought life’s meaning in a house floated by helium balloons. We have gotten inside the head of a bomb tech and barely made it out alive, only to find we have to go back because this war is unending. We have imagined what it would be like if the Jews had acted like the Apaches and scared the living shit out of the sadistic Nazis. We have seen life through the eyes of the ten feet tall Na’vi and been transported into a living, breathing world of Pandora – a virtual reality experience like no other. We have seen life from inside the worst possible family and we have seen a girl make her escape. We have gone up in the air because we just can’t make it work on the ground. We have seen what it would be like if we morphed into a Prawn. In the films presented this year we aren’t on the winning side. We are on the side of the fighter, the rebel – we see life through the lens of the underdog. And our empire has never seemed more threatening.
The director is usually the star of the best picture race unless it’s going to be a year when picture and director split. There is no doubt that there is a directing star this year. And funnily enough, she’s gotten there with very little star publicity appearances; Bigelow, like the Coen brothers, is on the shy side. She can’t do the dog and pony show that is required of awards contenders. She speaks sincerely and from the heart. She is also not quite used to success.
When Gladiator and Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon were barreling towards Oscar, neither Ang Lee, the winner of the DGA and the toast of the town that year (having directed, hands down, the best film), nor Ridley Scott (who had the most successful film with Gladiator, driven by a compelling lead performance by Russell Crowe who ended up winning Best Actor) took home the best director prize. Instead, in a bit of a shocker, Steven Soderbergh, who was nominated twice for two different movies, walked home with the prize. History was made — probably not as memorable as it might have been if Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had won Best Picture, but it was made nonetheless with Soderbergh and his double nomination and subsequent win.
The only other director to be nominated twice in the same year for two different films was Michael Curtiz, who did it back in 1938.
Steven Soderbergh probably won due to a split vote scenario between Gladiator fans and Ang Lee fans – Gladiator, Best Picture driven, Crouching Tiger, director driven. There had been a letter circulating to get Soderbergh fans to vote for only one film out of the two to ensure he would win for something. Perhaps that grass roots campaign among actual voters ended up working better than any ad campaign ever could.¬†But here we are, dangling on the edge of history and looking back – the only director who should have won that year was Ang Lee for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
But let’s look at some Best Director stats from Wikipedia:
John Ford has won the most Best Director Oscars – 4, followed by Frank Capra and William Wyler, with three apiece. Wyler has the most nominations – 12. Robert Altman, Clarence Brown, Alfred Hitchcock, and King Vidor are tied for the most nominations without a win, at five each.
Only two directors have received consecutive Best Director awards: John Ford for 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath and 1941’s How Green Was My Valley, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz for 1949’s A Letter to Three Wives and 1950’s All About Eve.
No African-American has ever won best director, and only two have ever been nominated: John Singleton for 1991’s Boyz n the Hood and Lee Daniels for 2009’s Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire.
Ang Lee is the only Asian (or non-Caucasian) to have won the prize for 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. Other Asian nominees are Hiroshi Teshigahara for Woman of the Dunes, Akira Kurosawa for Ran, and M. Night Shyamalan for The Sixth Sense.
No woman has ever won best director, and only four have ever been nominated: Lina Wertm√ºller for 1976’s Seven Beauties, Jane Campion for 1993’s The Piano, Sofia Coppola for 2003’s Lost in Translation, and Kathryn Bigelow for 2009’s The Hurt Locker. 
Four LGBT People have won the award: Jerome Robbins for West Side Story, Tony Richardson for Tom Jones, George Cukor for My Fair Lady and John Schlesinger for Midnight Cowboy. At least seven others have been nominated: Pedro Almodovar, Lee Daniels, Stephen Daldry, James Ivory, Rob Marshall, Gus Van Sant and Franco Zeffirelli.
Two directors are on the verge of making history – Kathryn Bigelow and Lee Daniels. The question is whether that history will be made along with a Best Pic win, or whether these awards will split, the way they did with Gladiator/Crouching Tiger and Traffic.
I won’t argue whether Gladiator deserved Best Picture more than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The reason being, I don’t know what “Best Picture” means anymore. I used to think it was some sort of popularity contest, where the film the public, the critics and the Academy could agree upon was your winner. ¬† But things have changed in recent years. Films you wouldn’t think would ever get anywhere near a populist award like the Oscar have winded up winning: The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire. These are all great films, and certainly Oscar’s best Best Pic run since the 1970s. But there was a concerted effort this year to expand the Academy’s reach so as not to render them irrelevant. And despite the fact that all of the precursor awards have mostly gone The Hurt Locker’s way (except the SAG and the Globe), what’s so far being rewarded this year is quality of filmmaking rather than populist appeal. What we don’t know is whether the Academy will want to be more like the Globes and reward the popular film, or whether they will stick to their pattern of voting for the best one overall, despite the film’s box office appeal. We just don’t know. Best Picture remains a question mark. But what shouldn’t be a question mark is Kathryn Bigelow.
Despite the boredom churned up, and the heavy competition this year, there is little doubt in my mind, and you won’t be surprised to hear, that I think The Hurt Locker to be the best film of 2009. It isn’t just the historical significance, but that weighs heavy on the film’s context – but it is the film itself – the camera work, the way Bigelow has with the three main actors, the vivid, original story, the suspense, the tightly wound plot.
So why didn’t the HFPA (Golden Globes) go for it? Because it isn’t sentimental and it doesn’t make you sob like a baby, the way Avatar does. Neither does Up in the Air, for that matter. Both films pay a small price for keeping emotions at bay.¬† Slumdog Millionaire was a film that succeeded purely on its emotional impact. And you know, never get between a voter and his or her emotions because emotions will win almost every time. Bigelow keeps winning, in fact, because the emotion stirred up by watching this woman, this WOMAN, win is almost overwhelming. No other director delivers the emotional impact the way a Bigelow can. Adding to the impact, of course, is that she deserves to win.
Jim Cameron and the Asshole Factor was in play in 1997 when Titanic was heading for the big win. But it was so big, that movie, and its box office unlike anything we’d ever seen, there was no other option for voters but to hold their nose and give him the big win; they weren’t rewarding Cameron because they liked him. They were rewarding him because they had no other choice. And at that ceremony Cameron annoyed everyone by shouting “I’m King of the World!” But Cameron has changed. He’s mellowed a lot since those days because he has less to prove. With Avatar you get a sense that he really wants to tell this story and send a message about our pending environmental doom. This is backed up by the work his wife Suzy is doing — she’s even wearing a “green” dress designed by a student to the Oscars. Cameron himself has become an environmental activist and every time someone shoves a mic in his wife he praises his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow, as he was always her biggest fan. So why the complaints against Cameron? Although it would be very very rare, Avatar could still pull out a Best Pic win, but it’s hard to imagine voters preferring Cameron over Bigelow for the Best Director win.
Tarantino is a threat as well in the Director category, if you go by the Soderbergh rule of the grass roots campaign. I don’t really see how it’s possible, but I learned a long time ago not to underestimate Mr. Harvey Weinstein and I’m curious about his recent balls-out push for Basterds. What I think is at the bottom of it, though, is a desired win for Tarantino in screenplay at least, so that it will be impossible for voters NOT to award Mark Boal. I don’t think Weinstein seriously believes he can push Tarantino into the Best Director category for the win, but he can maybe secure that Original Screenplay Oscar.
So I really believe, when all is said and done, that just like Gabby Sidibe is Sandra Bullock’s biggest threat, Lee Daniels is Kathryn Bigelow’s biggest threat. History vs. History. Woman vs. African American and gay.¬† There is no getting around the fact that Precious has the emotional tug the other frontrunners lack (except perhaps Avatar).¬†¬† Daniels is incredibly charming, and winning. The opposing forces against Precious in the media will only strengthen its votes from the Academy. One must always remember that it’s often the passive/aggressive vote that is to be feared the most when all is said and done. The passive/aggressive vote that says “well maybe I don’t wanna give James Cameron another Oscar” or that maybe voters are sick and tired of people bashing Precious and its stars in the press. It’s possible.
With so much time to mull over the race, anything can happen. The truth is that it isn’t really about making history, even though that is an easy way to interpret this year. The bigger picture is that a woman finally directed a film men feel is worthy of award adulation on a major scale. No one has ever handed a woman a Best Directing award simply because she was a woman.
It is easy for people who don’t want to see the story play out to start finding flaws with Bigelow’s film. No one saw it, it has no plot, etc.¬† That is both the frontrunner’s curse, and general boredom. No film has thus survived the fronrunner’s curse this year – Up in the Air was harpooned, Avatar got it next, Precious seemed to also be under attack once it started really gathering heat. But the one film with the least amount of baggage, so good and very nearly flawless, has made it through so far relatively unscathed.¬† Like Martin Scorsese two years ago, Bigelow proves that a good director really just needs a good script to make the best film of the year. It takes a good degree of humility to be the kind of director who doesn’t also need to be the writer. One is not necessarily better than the other – it’s just that great films, and Oscar winning films, are often collaborations rather than one man (or woman’s) singular vision.
One hopes that, when all is said and done, and the dust of the fecund season has settled, that what we see are the films themselves. What do we see when the lights dim and the first frame emerges from the darkness? What journey are we taken on, what do we learn, what moves us? And where do we end up when the final credits roll?