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Should There Be a Distinction Between The Best Picture and the Best Director Oscar?

Ignoring the fact that, in practice, the Best Director Oscar simply exists to be a “runner-up” award in a really tight Best Picture race (like with Crash and Brokeback Mountain), with there being a huge overlap between the winners in both categories, I have been thinking a bit recently about whether there should be a more practical distinction between the two. Perhaps we should divorce the two awards, and decouple them in public consciousness. Of course, this is a purely academic argument (as the Academy voters will continue to associate them), but is the link between the two yet another indication of Hollywood’s director-centric culture?

Is it two for one?

 

The film which actually got me thinking about this was Gladiator, which somewhat ironically won the Best Picture Oscar and lost the Best Director Oscar. I, ironically, would have called it the other way around. I would have deemed Ridley Scott’s accomplishment in bringing the film itself to screen (so beautifully and carefully executed) that it actually surpasses the film itself. I honestly believe that if you took a script written by a five-year old and had cast Jim Carrey as Maximus (“… and I-aye-aye will have my… shut up in the back!”) and the movie would still have been an amazing accomplishment.

Of course, it’s hard to split a movie from its director. They are, after all, the point at which the buck stops. They are, to quote Nine, the guy who says “yes” or “no” to everything. They are (or should be – depending on the executives) the supreme arbitors of what appears on screen. Sure, there are people to whom various tasks are delegated, but it’s the director who ties it all together in a bow.

And, being honest, we treat them as such. We discuss the filmographies of directors as frequently as we do actors. We talk far more rarely of writers or even producers. Films are frequently labelled as “an [insert name here] film”. Being honest, I am not entirely convinced that directors are so deserving – I’d make an argument that a filmmaker only really deserves a “film by” credit if they wrote and directed it. After all, the writing provides the foundation upon which everything else builds.

And there’s the distinction. If we can distinguish between the Screenplay Oscars and the Best Best Picture Oscar, can it be that much more difficult to distinguish between the Director Oscar and the Best Picture Oscar? While the director is the one working on a film who ties everything together in a nice bow, it’s the writer who muct craft something from nothing. The writer starts with a tiny amount and builds the movie around it. The director then realises that story – sure, he might change a few words or solicit rewrites, but the script serves as the basis of the movie.

I'll deal with this directly...

 

I think it’s possible to recognise a director who has beautifully realised a world or a story, but has been held back either by the script or a performance. Of course, the argument suggests that, as a director, it was their responsibility to sort it all out, but I still think that there comes a point where it is possible to recognise the craft of the director above and beyond the final product (and the opposite is perhaps true, it’s possible to point to a great film that successed beyond the skill of the director). I am thinking of directors like Spike Jonze or Christopher Nolan (as well as, historically, Alfred Hitchock), who have tried to push what can and can’t be done within the studio system – even if the you could argue that the films themselves aren’t the best of a given year.

But I’m rambling. This idea is, at best, purely academic – although it will be interesting to see if the changes to the voting in the Best Picture race (which have not been mirrored in the Best Director category) may serve to put a bit of distance between the Best Picture and Best Director categories. Sure, The Hurt Locker took home both awards last year, but it takes time for trends like this to play out (and films winning Best Picture without a Best Director nomination were statistically more common in the historic days of ten Best Picture nominees than they were afterwards). Of course, I might be grasping at straws.

Still, it’s an interesting question. What do you guys think?

10 Responses

  1. I would say with truly great, all time mint quality, films it’s a lot more difficult to separate Director from Picture. Though the same could, and in fact should, be said that’s because all aspects (writing, directing, acting, filming, etc.) all lined up just right.

    Now if you take something like Slumdog Millionaire. The acting, was OK. The writing, was OK. The directing by Boyle held that movie together, Cinematography by Anthony Mantle, and editing by Chris Dickens made it what it was. Though because those 3 aspects of the film were so good, they can mask the weakness of the rest. Making it all the more difficult to split the film up into its varying components and judge them independently.

    Unfortunately when it comes to directors the only real way to tell if it was the director that made the film or all the other components is to weigh it against their body of work. Sure, lots of mediocre directors hit gold once, but was it because of them, or everyone around them stepping up? That’s a more difficult question to answer I’d say.

    • Yep, but you don’t always have the context of an entire career – I think that’s the tragedy of Scorsese. Although I loved The Departed, most would argue it wasn’t a patch on his earlier work, which never got the recognition it deserved. Some would say that by the time he built up his reputation he had already done his most deserving work.

  2. Count me as one who believes that Best Picture & Director should be linked. Directing encompasses such a complete vision of what we see on the screen, that it seems hypocritical to split the two (which probably accounts for why they so rarely divide).

    But…

    As long as Oscar continues with it’s 10 Nominee experiment, and likewise the weighted balloting that comes with it, I’d say it’s quite likely that we’ll see the categories split again.

    • Yep, I think we need a few years to see it though. Who are your choices for each award, by the by?

      • For my money, it’s still too early to tell. At this stage there are locks, there’s a trickle down effect, and there are x-factors

        Here’s where I’m at:

        Locks (based solely on what I have seen for myself) – INCEPTION, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, BLACK SWAN, 127 HOURS

        Trickle Down (again, I’ve seen these): SHUTTER ISLAND, GET LOW, TOY STORY 3, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, THE TOWN, WINTER’S BONE

        X Factors (haven’t seen these – some are yet to be released): THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT, THE KING’S SPEECH, TRUE GRIT, THE FIGHTER

        There are a lot of films that could make the cut, but we won’t have a clear picture until January (no matter what advance hype you choose to believe, remember how big of a contender NINE felt like at this time last year). Bet the farm on those four locks though.

        As for director, I’d wager that Nolan, Fincher, and Aronofsky are in…the last two are up for grabs.

        On the whole, it’s a good year, because there are so many quality titles, that a lot of them are in the conversation…unlike last year when voters had trouble naming ten films they dug.

      • I agree on the locks, but – and I haven’t seen them either – I’d almost put you x-factors far ahead of the trickle down. All I want is Nolan to get a director nod – finally. He should have received one for Memento (and The Prestige and, if you’ll forgive me being populist, The Dark Knight). And I’m glad someone agrees with me that it has been a good year! 🙂

      • My X-Factors might very well be ahead of the trickle-downs…but the reason why I have them off to one side is because I am yet to see them for myself, and thus, don’t want to predict based on reputation alone.

        Call it the NINE clause if you want…or the LOVELY BONES effect.

        As for Nolan, he’ll be slugging it out with Russel, Hooper, and perhaps even the Coens. Director is a much more interesting race than picture this year, and won’t clear up until after the DGA noms.

        Can’t say I agree with the PRESTIGE nomination – which of Inniratu, Scorsese, Eastwood, Frears, and Greengrass to you take away?

  3. They do appear to go hand in hand, but I think it can be argued that Best Editing and Best Picture are more closely tied to each other than BP and Best Director.

    It doesn’t really bother me that the two are strongly associated, since the overall movie is the vision and work of the director. That’s a director’s job, to give you the best possible version the story in front of you. So if the movie is decided to be a Best Picture, most people think that the director then deserves credit for that as well. I don’t completely agree with that, but they do sometimes go hand-in-hand.

    Like last year, for The Blind Side to have been nominated for Best Picture, there had to be voters out there that had Blind Side as their #1 movie. Did they also have the director, whom I can’t even name at the top of my head because of insignificance, at the top of the Best Director list? Highly doubt it. But then again, the movie receiving #1 votes is astonishing in the first place.

    I do think that the categories will split, though. I’m not really sure if ‘127 Hours’ will have enough support to win the Best Picture, especially of The King’s Speech and The Social Network hold their lead, but I do think that Boyle will end up winning Best Director.

    The King’s Speech’s success is apparently more due to the performances, screenplay, and below the line tech nods (art direction, costume design), and The Social Network can’t even be mentioned nowadays without Sorkin receiving credit. While Fincher does deliver, this is the least “Fincher-esque” movie of the director’s filmography.

    • I actually dig that the TV spots include a “written by Aaron Sorkin” credit. I think you’re right – he’s a lock for best screenplay and the movie isn’t “Fincher-esque”, but I wouldn’t put it past him to win both.

      • Oh, I agree that Sorkin deserves a good chunk of credit, although I learned earlier this week that when Zuckerberg is posting away on Facesmash (maybe the wittiest part of the film), they used what the real life Zuckerberg posted on the net.

        It kinda reminds of Juno a few years back. Everybody was raving about Cody’s screenplay, with Reitman receiving hardly any recognition (unfairly at that).

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