There have been two times in Oscar history where a director and his film surged at the last minute. In one case, Mel Gibson and Braveheart won Best Picture and Best Director, and in another, Roman Polanski won Best Director and Ronald Harwood won Adapted Screenplay for The Pianist.
In 1996, Ron Howard and Apollo 13 had “won everything” heading into Oscar night (the PGA, the DGA, and SAG Ensemble). The only thing it didn’t get was an Oscar nomination for Best Director, and the DGA still awarded Howard in spite of that. Back then, the Oscars were in the last week of March and there was time for a counter narrative to form. But passion drove Braveheart’s win. It drove The Pianist’s wins, and it must be said that it drove Parasite’s wins.
Many will chalk this up to the SAG awards and the standing ovation Parasite received there. That was evidence of preexisting momentum and no doubt increased momentum. Not to mention the headline boosts they got afterwards when Parasite made history as the first foreign language film to win Outstanding Ensemble. That seemed to be the best bump it got heading final Oscar voting.
But rather than look at Parasite, I want to look at path of 1917 and wonder why, if Parasite was that popular, it didn’t win the Globe for Director or Screenplay, the Directors Guild, or the Producers Guild. We know that winning the BAFTA doesn’t mean much. Roma won the BAFTA last year, but they didn’t feel the same motivation to make history with their headlines the next day. 1917 was a British war more than it was anything else. But still, you wonder, for Sam Mendes especially, why the foreplay? If he wasn’t going to win the Oscar for Best Director why did he keep winning Best Director elsewhere?
The answer people will always give you is that “they just liked Parasite more.” And indeed, that would explain it winning Best Picture, as Spotlight or Moonlight did, but losing Best Director because Best Director ordinarily matches with the DGA.
La La Land won Best Director after winning the Globes for Best Film (Musical) and Best Director, the DGA, the PGA, and BAFTA.
The Revenant won Best Director after winning the Globs for Best Film (Drama) and Best Director, the DGA, and BAFTA.
Ang Lee won Globe Director, the DGA, and BAFTA Director for Crouching Tiger and Steven Soderbergh won the Oscar for Best Director. But Crouching Tiger, a $100 million box-office phenomenon, still won the Oscar for Foreign Language Film.
Since the first PGA award in 1990, only three PGA + DGA winners did not go on to win Best Director at the Oscars:
Ben Affleck, Argo (not nominated for Best Director) — Ang Lee won for Life of Pi, Argo won Best Picture
Rob Marshall, Chicago — Roman Polanski won for The Pianist while Chicago won Best Picture
Ron Howard, Apollo 13 (not nominated for Best Director) — Mel Gibson won for Braveheart, Picture and Director
Additionally, Apollo 13 was the only PGA + DGA winner prior to last night that did not go on to win either Best Director or Best Picture. 1917 became the second.
Here are the other times in the shared history of the DGA and Oscar where they didn’t match, going all the way back to 1948:
1968: Anthony Harvey won the DGA for The Lion in Winter — Carol Reed won the Oscar for Oliver! + Best Picture
1972: Frances Ford Coppola won the DGA for The Godfather — Bob Fosse won the Oscar for Cabaret (Godfather won Best Picture)
1985: Steven Spielberg won the DGA for The Color Purple (not nominated for Oscar) — Sydney Pollack won the Oscar for Out of Africa + Best Picture
You can see how rare it is for a director to win the DGA and not win the Oscar for Best Director at least. So you have to ask why, in such a short season, could opinions among directors with ballots have changed that fast?
That will bring you to the Academy itself and what I think happened.
1) The Roma Effect — I think that Roma came really close to winning more last year. There was enough of an uproar about Green Book that it created a ripple effect throughout a voting body that really wants to be seen as “good.” No other voting body was shamed for choosing Green Book. Not the attendees at Toronto who awarded it the People’s Choice Award, not the Producers Guild, not the HFPA. It was as though its Oscar win came out of nowhere, but it really didn’t. It came from somewhere. Because many Academy members were blissfully unaware of the Twitter outrage around it, they went ahead and voted for Green Book. But perhaps many of them regretted it once it turned into a Crash-like story (and remains so).
The same thing happened this year with the Oscar nominations. At the Golden Globes, Dolemite Is My Name and Eddie Murphy were nominated. But when SAG nominations were announced, there was only one ensemble nominee that had any people of color in it: Parasite. The PGA and DGA and BAFTA all picked the same movies. Yet the only stories out there were mostly about the #OscarsSoWhite shut out. Stephen King wrote an op-ed about how the Oscars are rigged in favor of white people. The New York Times ran several stories about how white the Oscars were and there were groups boycotting the Oscars as a result of the lack of female directing nominees (don’t get me started on that one). That means that at least part of what drove the wave of popularity for Parasite was that even if people didn’t watch the movie, they might have voted for it to ease at least some of the heat. Won’t they be surprised when they finally do watch it and see how great it really is.
2) Bong Joon Ho was everywhere during Oscar season and he’s the epitome of humble grace. He campaigned in a way that rivaled Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart. This, too, relates back to Roma as Lisa Taback had the actresses from Roma everywhere all of the time so that people got to know them. Bong Joon Ho even went to the newly minted Hollywood Film Awards. He’s so charming and charismatic that his presence became infectious. There is simply no way Sam Mendes could have been out there campaigning like that and not become a joke. With Bong, people took pictures, shared them online, loved any sort of sighting of him anywhere. Mendes would have been accused of wanting it too much, as would Quentin Tarantino or any of them, for that matter. But Bong is able to get away with it because the truth is that he clearly didn’t seem to want it that much; rather, he carried off the natural aura of awestruck delight, and was happy with even one award for Screenplay or International Feature, let alone the whole bowl of ramdon. When someone has that sort of personality with a movie that good, who doesn’t want to award him?
In the lead up to the other earlier awards, he hadn’t done as much publicity, wasn’t as well-known, and was not yet beloved. That, coupled with the SAG standing ovation, gave Parasite the right amount of momentum at exactly the right time.
I don’t buy it when people say “oh, everyone knew Parasite would win back in Telluride.” Well, okay, so why did 1917 win everything else?
Because something else was going on in the Academy. Part of that, no doubt, was the actor factor — whose influence was obviously not in play with any other voting group. But part of it was wanting to change the optics, to change the conversation, to perhaps undo the “damage” from last year’s Roma loss.
That is the best way I can explain it. I always feel badly for people who win everything prior to Oscar and then lose the ultimate prize at the last minute, whether it’s Jason Reitman for Up in the Air or Glenn Close for The Wife or Sam Mendes for 1917. Imagine, for example how we would have ached for Laura Dern if Scarlett Johansson had swept in to upset at the Oscars last night. When the rug is pulled out from under a sure bet like that, it always reminds me of that Bob Dylan line, “You just kinda wasted my precious time. But don’t think twice, it’s all right.”
I have always said it would be difficult for me to choose between these directors and these movies. Like most of us here, I admire them all so much. 2019 gave us an embarrassment of riches and that naturally resulted in an incredibly tough, competitive year. But one thing we know from long experience: having acting nominations, or in their place SAG nominations, always helps a movie triumph. Movies that win Best Picture almost always have acting nominations, and the lack of that hurt 1917. But it still doesn’t fully explain why Mendes and 1917 won all those awards leading up to Oscar night.
I really think, in the end, many of the votes for Parasite were a vote for something seen as significant, rather than a vote against something else. And, as often happens at the Oscars, what they were voting for was only partly the movie itself, though we can all be happy that this year the movie itself is clearly deserving.