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What Does It Mean When the Best Director and Best Picture Split at the Oscars?

In four of the past five Academy Awards, the Best Picture and Best Director awards have split. Could it happen again with this group of first-time nominees?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“If it’s true that every component of a film owes at least something to a director, then wouldn’t an Oscar for Best Picture be an Oscar for Best Director as well?” That’s the question at the center of a recent IndieWire think piece that asked — rhetorically, of course —whether the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would consider “retiring” its second-most-prestigious non-acting honor. The prompt for this concern was the then-smoldering issue of Greta Gerwig not receiving a Golden Globe nomination for directing Lady Bird, an omission that looked bad enough before presenter Natalie Portman called out the category’s chromosomal disparities, earning volleys of applause from an already charged-up audience (and flustering eventual winner Guillermo del Toro into what looked like his only forced smile of the 2018 awards season).

As it turns out, what the Hollywood Foreign Press Association thinks actually matters. Earlier this month, Gerwig became the fifth woman nominated for an Oscar for Best Director in the history of the award (some quick math indicates that this makes her a member of the proverbial 1 percent). Gerwig’s presence in a field that includes del Toro, Jordan Peele, Christopher Nolan, and Paul Thomas Anderson makes for interesting Oscar-pool handicapping. For one thing, none of the nominees have ever won before, the first time that this has been the case since 2002. For another, each filmmaker has accomplished something distinctive and idiosyncratic, whether it’s Peele’s yoking of sketch-comedy absurdity to visionary horror; del Toro’s luxurious marriage of sci-fi and romance; Nolan’s deceptively populist experimentation with cinematic time and space; PTA’s (self-)portrait of the artist as an impossible man; or Gerwig’s fleet, millennial update of vintage teen-comedy tropes.

I don’t know who my (Canadian) money is on here. But I think it’s a good bet that whoever wins won’t be back onstage at the end of the telecast hugging his or her producers and cast as Jimmy Kimmel makes one last Trump joke and throws to credits. The splitting of the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director has happened 26 times in 89 years, but four times in the past five years — a startling statistical turnaround that’s interesting to try to account for. Writing in The New Yorker, Richard Brody suggested that this trend reflected a period of industry turmoil where many of the most interesting filmmakers find themselves working outside of studio structures with enhanced freedom and limited interference. “Note the frequent similarity of the Oscars and such independent-film awards as the Gothams and the Independent Spirits,” wrote Brody, “and the rise of such films as Moonlight and Boyhood on the grand stage.”

There is something to this thesis, insofar as it’s true that writer-directors like Richard Linklater and Barry Jenkins (neither of whom actually won Oscars for directing) have located a sweet spot in between populism and personal artistry. It’s also true that, on the whole, the Academy’s choices — for nominees as well as winners — have been on average a bit less middlebrow in the 2010s than they were in, say, the 1980s, when white elephants like Gandhi and Out of Africa lumbered through the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, stomping everything in their path.

A quick scan of the Best Director–but-not–Best Picture honorees since 2012 offers a considerably simpler solution, one that points to an increased fascination with and appetite for ostentatious directorial virtuosity. With the possible exception of La La Land’s Damien Chazelle — whose victory over Jenkins was, in its way, as much of an upset as Moonlight’s ultimate triumph in the Best Picture category — the Best Director winners are the ones who’ve seemingly done the most directing. The glistening deep-blue sea of Life of Pi and the starry outer-space void of Gravity are almost completely virtual environments. And the prizes bestowed on Ang Lee and Alfonso Cuarón acknowledged the heightened degree of difficulty inherent in conjuring those settings out of ones and zeros.

Life of Pi lost Best Picture to Argo, a much more conventionally produced thriller that didn’t even garner a nomination for Ben Affleck, while Gravity was defeated by 12 Years a Slave, which had far more serious subject matter. What got Lee and Cuarón over the top with voters was their mutual embrace of spectacle.

The Greatest Showman of the decade, though, is Cuarón’s countryman Alejandro González Iñárritu, a supremely gimmicky (and yet totally self-serious) entertainer whose artistic credo is basically: “Never Enough.” In Birdman, Cuarón borrowed Gravity’s gifted cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, and his zero-gravity style, relocating them from a floating space station to a two-story New York theater. The result was a curious hybrid: a movie where the actors had to go over-the-top just to compete with the camerawork. Birdman looked positively subtle next to Iñárritu’s follow-up, The Revenant, which tirelessly dogged Werner Herzog, Terrence Malick, and Andrei Tarkovsky in an attempt to etch its auteur’s face onto the Mount Rushmore of blockbuster mysticism. Compared to Tom McCarthy’s workmanlike direction of Spotlight, a movie whose strengths lay in its ideas about the importance of investigative journalism and fidelity to facts, Iñárritu’s all-out stylistic assault was irresistible, and so he became the first guy to win directing Oscars for back-to-back nominations since Oliver Stone.

Stone picked up his first statue in 1987 for Platoon, a grim Vietnam War film that took some of its thematic cues from The Deer Hunter but had a nervous energy all its own. Pauline Kael once observed that Stone made movies like a guy with a gun pointed at his temple, and Platoon’s driving, relentless pace saw it branded as a modern masterpiece upon arrival. But the more telling prize may be the one Stone won three years later, for the similarly themed — and even more kinetic — Ron Kovic biopic Born on the Fourth of July. The Best Picture winner that year was the genteel period comedy Driving Miss Daisy, which trained its placid camera on master actors Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman batting stagy dialogue back and forth in the space of a vintage Cadillac. Where Driving Miss Daisy director Bruce Beresford’s self-effacing approach took a backseat to writing and acting, Stone’s quick-cut style was the real star of Born on the Fourth of July, towering over even Tom Cruise.

The calculus here adds up on two fronts. Driving Miss Daisy was the more palatable, likable film, while Born on the Fourth of July foregrounded craft in a way that was impossible to ignore. The same scenario played out along slightly different lines in 1999 when Saving Private Ryan — whose battle sequences transposed some of Platoon’s brutal modernism to the context of World War II — earned Steven Spielberg a second Best Director Oscar but the film was upset in the Best Picture category by Shakespeare in Love, a film whose virtues were perceived to be more literary than visual. Consider also the irony of Ridley Scott, one of the most excessively stylish Hollywood filmmakers of his era, getting pipped at the post in 2001 because Gladiator’s deliberately old-fashioned, 1950s sword-and-sandal vibe looked moldy next to Steven Soderbergh’s refreshingly versatile, carefully color-coded (and vaguely Oliver Stone’d) aesthetic in Traffic.

Sometimes, the splits have been more baffling. In 2006, Lee won for Brokeback Mountain, a far superior movie — in terms of direction and also literally everything else — to Paul Haggis’s Crash. It’s hard to say now why the latter took Best Picture as it’s become a kind of pop-cultural punch line. The list of Director/Picture splits contains some interesting trivia as well, like the fact that Alfred Hitchcock — for many, the most stylistically distinctive director of all time — was denied in 1941 for the Best Picture–winning Rebecca by John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath — the second of three instances where the man known as “Pappy” was anointed by his peers without his film taking the top prize. Ford won four Best Director Oscars in all, a record, but his only production to win Best Picture was How Green Was My Valley, a moving, Welsh-set 19th-century period piece that’s nevertheless infinitely less famous than the movie it beat: Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane.

The all-time champion of cognitive dissonance, though, was Bob Fosse topping Francis Ford Coppola in 1973. I don’t say this because I think that Fosse’s work on Cabaret is in any way inferior to Coppola’s on The Godfather — watch the staging and cutting during the film’s brilliant “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” sequence and you’ll see a filmmaker who intuitively understands how to build and sustain tension (it’s as scary as any of The Godfather’s broad-daylight assassinations). But considering that one of these two films was its year’s biggest box-office hit — and, you know, one of the half-dozen most famous American movies ever made — the result still resonates with an amazing strangeness.

The recent rupture between Best Picture and Best Director isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and there are plenty of instances when similarly contradictory thinking among the voting body would have made the Oscars a bit more palatable. By all means, let Dances With Wolves keep its win (the only thing to do with a movie like that is give it an Academy Award) but don’t mistake Kevin Costner’s parade of widescreen selfies for better filmmaking than the appalling, hilarious comedy of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Of all the Best Picture winners from the 2000s, A Beautiful Mind has probably aged the worst; why not ask Ron Howard to donate his award to David Lynch, whose nomination in 2002 for Mulholland Drive was probably his last, best shot (although the Oscar campaign for Laura Dern in 2007 for Inland Empire was a thing of beauty). Or, best of all, make Tom Hooper give back the award he stole from David Fincher — he can film the hand-over through a fisheye lens and win an Oscar for it next year.