To start, there are a few simple rules for predicting the Best Director Oscar winner. In general, here they are:
- The winning director has almost always won the Directors Guild of America (“DGA”) prize a few weeks before the Oscar ceremony.
- The Best Director Oscar often goes hand-in-hand with a Best Picture win for the same film.
- If the DGA and Best Picture Oscar don’t match, the Best Director often goes to the DGA winner anyway (cf. Born on the Fourth of July, Saving Private Ryan, Brokeback Mountain).
And now, as with all rules, there are a few exceptions. These aren’t hard-and-fast loopholes or rules, they just … happened when the envelops were opened and the winner announced.
- The first instance of the DGA prize not matching up with Oscar was at the 1968 awards, when DGA winner Anthony Harvey lost for The Lion in Winter to Carol Reed for Oliver!
- Further to exception #1, there have been a few instances when the match-up failed to materialize: 1995 (Mel Gibson over Ron Howard); 2000 (Steven Soderbergh over Ang Lee); 2002 (Roman Polanski over Rob Marshall).
In other words, all things being equal, the DGA winner is the single most powerful prognosticator of who may win the Best Picture Oscar. Last year, David Fincher looked absolutely unstoppable for the Oscar, until Tom Hooper scooped the DGA and went on to claim the Oscar, and The King’s Speech outdrew The Social Network for the top prize. In other words, the DGA is almost absolutely authoritative when it comes to predicting the Oscar, like a Supreme Court decision with little to no room for appeal. It also has a domino effect, as the prize also often dictates the Best Picture winner, and may have a trickle-down effect in the lesser categories, resulting in a Slumdog Millionaire-style sweep.
We already know that Michel Hazanivicius won the DGA for The Artist. This already gives away who I think will take home the Oscar. But in the event of an upset – such as the jaw-dropping victory Roman Polanski pulled off in 2002 for The Pianist over Chicago’s Rob Marshall – let’s consider how the other nominees stack up against him.
Michel Hazanivicius for The Artist
For him: DGA winner. Also just scooped up the BAFTA. He has been responsible for the entire picture, from writing the script to directing it, and even editing it long after production ended. Hazanivicius is nominated for three, count’em three, Oscars this year, for each of those efforts. It shows creative complete control from beginning to end, short of actually coming up with the funds to produce the picture. In terms of money, it helps that Hazanivicius made his film for a lean, mean $12 million and it’s already turned out a tidy profit.
Against him: In the event that the Academy sees fit to award him Best Original Screenplay instead, and he’s the shoo-in for Best Editing, they may elect to give the prize to someone else in an effort to spread the wealth. Plus, no one in Hollywood seems to be able to pronounce, let alone spell, his name correctly. (Think about the presenter who may flub it up at the podium.)
Alexander Payne for The Descendants
For him: Critical darling who made three back-to-back Oscar-recognized films, including 2004’s Adapted Screenplay winner Sideways, returns with a slice-of-life dramedy made on a shoestring budget, yet with a major star, and turns it into a critical and commercial success. Payne is recognized as being one of the medium’s best writer-directors, and actors clamor to be in his character-based films the way they do for Woody Allen.
Against him: He’s already won in the past, and there may be a perception that his greater strength might seem to be in screenwriting rather than in directing. The small character-based Descendants has the look and feel of an intimate drama, and up against period pieces and experimental, avant-garde competition, looks relatively small in comparison. He’ll have a better shot at Adapted Screenplay, where he’s one of the front-runners.
Martin Scorsese for Hugo
For him: Ah, Marty! He has the Golden Globe and National Board of Review prizes to back him up, and his film is up for a leading 11 nominations, more than for even purported front-runner The Artist. He’s an industry legend who lost for such landmark films as Goodfellas, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, and he’s worked with just about everyone in Hollywood. One of the industry’s favourite sons, his victory for The Dpearted five years ago was greeted with one of the longest standing ovations in Oscar history and was a popular win.
Against him: He’s already had his Oscar payday, and Hugo was a $150 million money pit that couldn’t turn great reviews and critical prizes into long box office play. Hollywood doesn’t really like to honour films that don’t make money, or at the very least break even.
Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris
For him: Nominated for just about every single precursor award, he made his highest-grossing film ever on a relatively flimsy budget, and garnered some of the best reviews of his career along the way. A frequent nominee in this category (this is seventh attempt) he’s won just once, for 1977’s Annie Hall.
Against him: If Allen is true to form, he won’t even show up to collect his Oscar if he were to win (he’s only ever gone to the Oscars once, in a 9/11 tribute for the 2001 awards). The Academy likes to see winners gush, and even Scorsese turned up every single time he was nominated and faced his losses with good humour and on-camera. This is not to say that Allen’s a sore loser, it’s just to say that the Academy Awards just aren’t his thing, and maybe that perception might hurt him. Plus, he’s one of the front-runners for Best Original Screenplay and already has three career awards, indicating that there may be no need to honour him here.
Terrence Malick for The Tree of Life
For him: He swept through the critics’ prizes, winning more awards than just about anyone this year. He’s a previous nominee who hasn’t won yet, despite his reputation for being a true auteur and a major force in American filmmaking. The film is a searing, uncompromising vision signaling complete artistic freedom, with minimal studio interference, which a lot of directors will recognize and respect.
Against him: He’s painfully slow at releasing movies, at one point taking 20 years between films. His uncompromising vision is also a complete turn-off for a lot of people who flat-out despise his work. Malick doesn’t make crowd-pleasers and he is not a journeyman director who could happily switch between blockbusters and artistic offerings (cf. Martin Scorsese). He also didn’t make the DGA shortlist, indicating a lack of industry support. But if anyone’s going to pull off an upset, it just might be him.
Team France! Hazanavicius has this in the bag, but I’m going with a no-guts-no-glory call for Malick should Hazanavicius’s name not be the one called out on Oscar night.
The Oscar will go to: Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist.