E: Of the remaining major precursor awards, the Directors Guild may be the least revelatory in terms of Oscar, and no, it’s not just because the DG awards only direction and not the over all work. And it’s not simply because there’s more crossover in membership between the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the British Academy of Film and Television than there is between AMPAS and the Director’s Guild. No. What we have to consider is that while there is no frontrunner when it comes to Best Picture, there is definitely one for Best Director. The precursor awards point us pretty firmly in one direction.
If so, why do we care? I think there’s something to be prized from this bit of prize-giving; in a year where the Best Picture race is so completely crazy, any little bit of information helps. Let’s take a quick walk through a few scenarios.
1. Alfonso Cuaron wins. In this perhaps most likely scenario, not much about our situation changes. A win for Gravity may mean that long respected director Cuaron, who among many honors is the winner of this year’s Golden Globe and Critics Choice, is indeed primed to be the first Mexican to win best director. Would such a win mean that his thrilling masterwork Gravity would be more likely to take Best Picture? I don’t think so. Cuaron’s feat in seamlessly blending animation and live action boggles the mind, but his film is far more than a masterclass in special effects and 3D. It puts technology to the best possible use – advancing the story while truly keeping his audience on the proverbial edge of their seats in the process. There’s no excess, nothing cool for the sake of coolness. His work puts you directly inside the story, and it’s no wonder that even in a year bursting with fantastic competition, Hollywood can’t help bowing at his achievement. They could remain content with honoring him, however, and not the film.
2. Steve McQueen wins. Now this would be a somewhat more revelatory occurrence. While the historical importance and staggering power of 12 Years a Slave is blatantly obvious, Cuaron’s wizardry has distracted from McQueen’s more traditionally film-making. Part of me wonders why 12 Years hasn’t run away with every award as the similarly brilliant, similarly important Schindler’s List did (also against brilliant competition), and I’ve come up with a few answers. First off, Gravity not only thrills, but brings us something that feels new. It’s also a philosophically deep blockbuster. And you can say that you liked it, loved it; you can watch it again and again for the visceral thrill and the emotional journey. 12 Years isn’t a movie you enjoy watching; it’s an experience, an education in empathy.
On the other hand, so was Schindler’s List, and it was up against some pretty great, thoughtful films like In the Name of the Father and The Fugitive that entertained while saying something real about the human condition. I’d never say something so paltry as that I “liked” Schindler’s List or 12 Years A Slave; they transcend our normal experience of cinema. So again, why hasn’t 12 Years dominated? Unlike Schindler’s List, it’s not a hit at the box office. Perhaps it’s the subject matter; maybe it’s easier to demonize the Nazis than Southern plantation owners when we’re forced to see the white privilege of those slave owners as it translates to us today. No movie dealing with American slavery, even tangentially, has won Best Picture since 1939’s Gone With the Wind. Perhaps it’s still a little too uncomfortable.
At any rate, a win for British-African McQueen would not only make history, but would also signal that perhaps Hollywood’s decided it is not so squeamish after all.
3. David O. Russell wins. Because it is the least likely of the three scenarios, a win for Russell would perhaps be the most informative. Clever heist comedy American Hustle has the box office momentum, which lead many to believe that its SAG ensemble win presaged a turning of the tide – a theory unsupported by the PGA tie. Russell has built up an impressive awards record in the last few years, nominated in the past for both writing and directing. In fact, he’s the only one of the three previously nominated for Best Director (either by the Academy or by the Director’s Guild), and though he hasn’t won, he managed to get both Melissa Leo and Christian Bale on the podium for The Fighter, surely an achievement Hollywood will remember at some point. He joins a short list of directors who’ve managed to get an actor nominated in all four categories (actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress) for a single film: he’s also the only director ever to direct two such films, and the fact that he managed that feat in consecutive years impresses even more. Both Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle have been popular with critics and audiences alike. Clearly, what ever he’s selling, we’re buying.
If he were to win, it would back the evidence of SAG that his film still contends for the biggest prize. But a loss here wouldn’t rule out his film taking the big prize even, because two tough contenders can knock each other out of the fight; I’m thinking of the big battle between Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt) and Daniel Day Lewis (Gangs of New York) in which Best Actor ended up going to The Pianist’s Adrian Brody instead.
I’ll be back Sunday with a few words on the winner and what his win means.