No other awards event is more notorious for its snubs than the Oscars. It’s amazing how many premier directors have never won a directing award (and “no”, honorary awards don’t count). Today we ask the question: “What are the best directors who have never won an Oscar?”
You can’t have this discussion without talking about Kubrick, and the argument about his Oscar snubs starts with Spartacus (1960). Rarely does a film get nominated for key technical categories like cinematography and editing and not get a nom for picture and/or director. The Golden Globes gave the film Best Drama and nominated Kubrick. He would nab his first directing nomination for Dr. Strangelove (1964) and went on to get 3 more nominations for 2001, A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon (all 3 films also got Best Picture Nominations). Like a lot of visionary art, these films may have been initially jarring to some, but over time their impact and brilliance only grew larger. So when Full Metal Jacket was released in 1987, this was the perfect opportunity to bestow on him a long overdue Oscar. You could argue it was not in his top 5 films, but the Academy has a long tradition of giving the award to someone that was glaringly snubbed in the past, and it was egregious not to even nominate him. Unfortunately, in his last 12 years, he only made the controversial Eyes Wide Shut and passed away shortly before it’s release in 1999.
Verdict: Kubrick truly changed cinema forever, and every quality director working today will cite him as an influence. Dr.Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange were polarizing films when released, but he should have won for 2001, and, short of that, got the “overdue recognition” award for Full Metal Jacket.
DJ: Totally agree with 2001, it’s a film I struggled to like when I was young but I have seen it a few times since, it still looks great, beautifully filmed, just visonary stuff. BTW, I could watch Full Metal Jacket on a loop.
Compared to Kubrick’s scant 13 films, Ridley Scott has directed nearly 30 and shows no signs of slowing down. He’s been nominated for Best Director 3 times: for Thelma & Louise (1991), Gladiator (2000) and Black Hawk Down (2001), yet he’s best known for Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), two seminal works that would make any top 10-15 science fiction film list. Both films highlight the snobbery and short-sighted nature of a good portion of film criticism, which I would assert infects many of the old guard Academy voters. I can still remember the Boston Globe giving Blade Runner 2 stars and writing it off as a joyless genre picture. So what should Scott have won for? Personally, I’d say Thelma and Louise, because it was the year that Silence of the Lambs criminally swept the major categories. Looking back on this, the Academy should be ashamed of themselves. However, the easiest argument could be made for Gladiator (2000). It won Best Picture among another year of mediocre nominees, but yet the Academy gave Best Director to Stephen Soderberg for Traffic. Seriously, who is going back now and watching Traffic? This is where the snobbery and self-righteousness of Hollywood are on full display. Soderberg was a critical darling at the time and rode that sentiment to an undeserved win.
Verdict: While not one of the top Best Picture winners of all time, Gladiator was the best of 2000 and Scott deserved to win for creating a beautiful, lush and entertaining film that was both a throwback and modern epic. Russell Crowe even won for Best Actor – did he direct himself?
DJ: Yeah its definetely Gladiator, and I fully agree that the Academy loves Soderberg, who I personally find overrated. Scott is always trying to do interesting things and should get more credit, maybe its time for an honorary Oscar.
Ok, you think I’m crazy to mention Affleck in the same conversation as Kubrick and Scott? Well, hear me out. First off, forget about Armageddon, Gigli, and the Jennifers, we’re talking about him as a director. You can’t deny that he came out swinging with his first 3 directing efforts: Gone, Baby, Gone (2007), The Town (2010), and Argo (2012). The first two films were critically praised but were willfully ignored by the Academy, and I can prove this by comparing it to another Boston-set film based on a Dennis Lehane novel, Mystic River (2003). Mystic River was nominated for Best Picture and Director (for Hollywood darling Clint Eastwood), among a number of acting noms. I watched Mystic River again this past month, and it pales in comparison to the grittiness and emotional depth of Affleck’s two Boston-set films. Then with Best Picture winner Argo, Affleck proved could make a great film set outside of his hometown, creating a complex and thrilling drama, one that was also funny and thrilling to watch. How many nominated best picture dramas in the past decade can you say you actually enjoyed watching? And yet, the Academy decided Affleck didn’t even deserve a nomination for his directing. Finally, go back to any director that you love – Spielberg, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Fincher, etc. and look at their first 3 directing gigs and compare them to Affleck’s. While I haven’t seen his latest Live By Night, and I know it’s been panned, Affleck is off to an amazingly strong start, and at 45 he has the potential for a lot of great films ahead of him.
Verdict: Ben Affleck should have been nominated and won for Argo. That year Spielberg was auto-nominated for the highly overrated Lincoln, Michael Haneke for the unseen Amour (remember that one? Didn’t think so), and Ang Lee won for the forgotten Life of Pi.
DJ: Yeah it makes no sense that the film you make gets a Best Picture nomination but you get ignored for Best Director, especially with a film like Argo. Not winning for Argo is unacceptable. If he keeps his head on straight he has one in his future.
I was tempted to go with Charlie Chaplin since he is one of my all-time favorite directors and almost every one of his films is deserving. I made a decision to not include him because he technically won an Oscar for directing The Circus (1929) when a specific category for comedy was an award. So that counts and besides, I still have three top notch selections.
If there was a king of the Oscar snub it would be Alfred Hitchcock. “Hitch” was nominated for Best Director five times, Psycho(1960), Rear Window(1954), Spellbound(1945), Lifeboat(1944), and Rebecca(1940). He was like no other: directors try to copy or parody him (see Brian DePalma, M. Night Shyamalan, and even Mel Brooks) and he has his own adjective “Hitchcockian”. His films are beautiful, thrilling, complex and darkly comedic. They are studied in colleges across the globe. Hitchcock made his films for the entertainment value; he is not being political or manipulating a secret agenda. He just wanted to entertain. Scenes from these films are still iconic, the shower scene from Psycho, the crop duster from North By Northwest, the birds from The Birds. It’s criminal he was only nominated five times. Where is Notorious (my personal favorite), Vertigo, North By Northwest, Strangers on a Train, or The Birds? These films show up on many “best of” lists. In 1941 Rebecca did win Best Picture but Hitchcock lost the director award to John Ford for Grapes of Wrath. In 1945 Leo McCarey won for Going My Way, and incidentally, Billy Wilder should have won for Double Indemnity. Lifeboat is good but far from Hitchcock’s best. Spellbound was also a weaker entry in Hitchcock’s oeuvre. Rear Window lost to On the Waterfront and Elia Kazan, and it’s hard to argue with that. Hitchcock’s last shot was Psycho in 1960 but Billy Wilder won for The Apartment. While others are forgotten about Hitchcock will always be part of the conversation even years after his passing.
Verdict: Looking at the races he lost, I don’t see a travesty in any of those, but it’s the films that missed receiving a nomination that are the most glaring, especially Notorious and his masterpiece Vertigo. The Oscar nominees in 1959 were a weak field and Vertigo was not among them for Best Picture or Best Director. Gigi won but it should have been Vertigo.
MG: Totally agree that Hitchcock is right there as the biggest snub, especially considering so much of his work was both popular and quality. Often the sign of a good film is that it’s hard to categorize, and so many Hitchcock films fit that description (were they a drama, horror, mystery, thriller?), not to mention his penchant for dark humor. The films he was and wasn’t nominated for don’t make a lot of sense. I’d even argue that Psycho should NOT have been nominated, but North By Northwest should have. You are spot on that Vertigo should have been the one that brought him a trophy.
Sidney Lumet was a very different director than Hitchcock, his films often tackled controversial issues, sensational television news, police corruption, sex change operations. He is known for his “social realism”. He was nominated four times for Best Director: 12 Angry Men(1957), Dog Day Afternoon(1975), Network (1976) and The Verdict(1982). His first film, 12 Angry Men, is still a major classic and has some of the best character work of all-time. I came across Sidney Lumet when I was in my “Al Pacino phase” and two of his greatest movies star Pacino: Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon. He captures the 70’s beautifully in these films and they still pop today. He was an actor’s director and you can see that in some of their incredible performances. Lumet is very underrated as a director but he created some great films, The Verdict, Q&A, The Pawnbroker, Murder on the Orient Express, Running on Empty and his most relevant film for our current world Network. Talk about a film being ahead of its time, Network shows a television network profiting over Peter Finch’s broken down newsman’s on-air ravings and the sensationalism of news. It has one of the most famous movie lines of all-time “I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore.” Researching this I realized he has a huge body of work, outputting almost one film a year, and there was more of his films I need to see.
Verdict: I love Rocky just like everyone else but Network should have won. No offense to John G. Avildsen I am sure he is a nice guy but he has more Razzie nominations than Oscar nominations.
MG: I like your choice of Lumet, because he’s often forgotten about in discussions of great directors. Rocky was a sentimental choice, no doubt. Network is the better film.
Verdict: Seven may be my favorite Fincher film and The Game and Zodiac are pretty good too but the movie that should have won him a Best Director Oscar is Fight Club (1999). Not nominated in 2000, American Beauty ended up being the big winner. It’s a good film but Fight Club is better, its gritty, raw, and nihilistic. No one talks about The Cider House Rules or The Insider today. The Sixth Sense is on that list too and it’s overrated, Fight Club even has a better twist than the Sixth Sense. It should have been nominated and it should have won.
MG: I’m a huge fan of Fincher and love most of his films. Seven should have been nominated, but Fight Club is not a film I’ve previously thought of as a best picture contender. I still love The Insider, but you make a good case for Fight Club being a better film than what else was nominated last year. The Sixth Sense was a one-trick pony that’s now more of a punchline than a revered film. Fight Club it is. Plus it was Meatloaf’s best film.
See our Anthology on Fincher for more on David Fincher.