Friday, June 25, 2021

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Oscar '85: Steven Spielberg, Sydney Pollack, and Best Director

The nominees for Best Director this year do not include Steven Spielberg for The Color Purple. It's a significant point, for two reasons. Number one: The Color Purple led with eleven nominations, and while Picture and Director are rarely a five-for-five deal (even these days with the expanded lineup in the former, lone directors such as Thomas Vinterberg still pop up), one would think that the most-nominated film of the year would have the director who brought it all together lauded. Number two: not only was he nominated for the Directors Guild Award - against Huston, Pollack, Weir, and Cocoon's Ron Howard - he won the damn thing. In the 38 years of the DGA Awards, Spielberg was the first to win without even being nominated for the Oscar, a "feat" that's only been accomplished twice more: Howard for Apollo 13 in 1995 and Ben Affleck for Argo in 2012. Frankly, I think the Academy's directors branch got it right: I like The Color Purple, but I think some of Spielberg's choices are to its detriment. But even if he had been nominated at the Oscars, could he have forestalled the inevitable?:

Probably not. A sweep is a sweep is a sweep. What a tough choice to make, though! Look at the contenders:

Hector Babenco for Kiss of the Spider Woman
first and only nomination

Love the way he distinguishes between memory, fantasy, and reality, not just visually (the gold of the Nazi film, the chiaroscuro of the prison, the paler shades of memory) but aurally. Great staging of Molina's alienation throughout, even among other members of the queer community, an alienation pierced through the genuine chemistry between William Hurt and Raul Julia. There are a lot of ways this movie could have gone wrong (wrong-er?), and it's Babenco that keeps it so strong.
John Huston for Prizzi's Honor
past winner, fifth and final nomination in this category; Golden Globe winner for Best Director, NYFCC Awards winner for Best Direction; DGA Awards nominee for Best Director

I must not get what he's going for, because I don't like a single one of his decisions: the pacing, the casting, the tone. It's a dark comedy with neither enough laughs nor darkness, save a shot or two at the end. A disappointment, to be sure, but more than that, an absolute puzzle of a nomination!

Akira Kurosawa for Ran
first and only nomination; National Board of Review's Best Director of 1985; LAFCA Awards runner-up for Best Direction, NYFCC Awards runner-up for Best Direction

An adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear, re-set to warlord-era Japan. Staggering, the scale of this - these massive castles are sets, torched to the ground, soldiers and horses flying about, a crazed old man wandering amidst smoke and flames. Kurosawa spent a decade in pre-production on the film, and my God, the work paid off. How does one think of these images? How can one execute those thoughts so...perfectly? It's a wonderful thing.
Sydney Pollack for Out of Africa
third and final nomination for directing; DGA Award nominee for Best Director, Golden Globe nominee for Best Director

There's a serenity, a mildness that could bore, but instead perfectly charts thno: here, it comes off at first like a straightforward strangeness when Karen arrives, then an at-home calm as she grows more one with her adopted country. It's an adoption of Denys Finch-Hatton's observations on the animals, living by the day, taking everything as it is, and accepting it. Too, he directs the hell out of the hair-washing scene, one of the sexiest scenes in all cinema.

Peter Weir for Witness
first of four nominations for directing; DGA Awards nominee for Best Director, Golden Globe nominee for Best Director

The initial murder sequence is terrifying, the climactic shoot-out exciting, and everything in between, from the raising of a barn to the silent glances between Ford and McGillis to the "Wonderful World" dance to Patti Lupone, is a thrill. This is how great films are made. 


Love Pollack's work and his film, but my vote goes to a filmmaker who made something that's just unlike anything else you've seen:


Next time, the nominees for Best Actor: Harrison Ford (Witness), James Garner (Murphy's Romance), William Hurt (Kiss of the Spider Woman), Jack Nicholson (Prizzi's Honor), and Jon Voight (Runaway Train).

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