By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist February 15, 2013 at 1:08PM
Over the last couple of days, as part of our build up to the 85th Academy Awards on Sunday, February 24th, we've been highlighting some of the best and most undersung performances by the Best Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress nominees this year. Everything from Christoph Waltz's appearance in a 1990s British comedy about the European Commission, to Anne Hathaway's turn as a promiscuous would-be gangbanger in "Havoc."
To send you into the long weekend, we're gonna take a break from the on-screen talent momentarily and focus on the early work of the 2013 nominated directors. The five nominees (particularly controversial, thanks to the exclusion of Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow) are a mixed batch – from one of the most beloved (and most nominated) directors in history to a 70-year-old European veteran with his first nod to a debut filmmaker less than half their age. But all have something in common: they showed promise at the beginning of their careers with films that we've highlighted below. Let us know your own thoughts, and who you think will win out in one of the toughest Oscar categories this year.
While Steven Spielberg's first full feature "Duel" (made for TV, but released in cinemas in Europe and elsewhere) is perhaps better known and more typical of the director's future output, the real gem of the director's pre-"Jaws" years is his first theatrical feature proper, "The Sugarland Express." The director's smart, sweet, human take on films like "Badlands" and "Bonnie & Clyde," which won Best Screenplay at Cannes in 1974, toplines Goldie Hawn as Lou Jean Poplin, who breaks her husband Clovis (William Atherton) out of the joint in order to get their child back from his foster parents, taking a state trooper (Michael Sacks) hostage in the process. They head out on the run in a caravan, with the law (led by Ben Johnson) in hot pursuit. Blending a slightly caperish feel (the couple become local celebrities, mobbed by fans) with a more serious, tragic tone that Spielberg wouldn't return to for over a decade, it's a supremely confident film, but more impressive than the crash zooms and tricksy camera moves is the way he juggles tone. By the time the film reaches its downbeat conclusion, it's as affecting as anything the director would ever go on to make. And while, famously, no actor has ever won an Oscar for a Spielberg film (a streak likely to be broken in 2013 by "Lincoln"), he's always been a good director of actors, demonstrated here by one of Hawn's best performances, and a lovely supporting turn by Johnson. It's arguably the most undervalued picture in the filmmaker's canon.
Spielberg's career might have gotten off to a stellar start, but there's one filmmaker nominated this year who had an even more meteoric rise early on, with two Foreign Language Oscar nominations for his first three films, and his first English-language film earning seven nods in total (though he himself missed out). And yet "Sense & Sensibility" remains curiously underrated on Ang Lee's resume. On first glance, the Taiwan-born filmmaker was far from the obvious choice to direct an adaptation of the Jane Austen period classic, which had been adapted by Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson. Indeed, Lee had never heard of Austen, and later said, "I thought they were crazy... what do I know about 19th century England?" But it's easy to see what Thompson and producer Lindsay Doran saw in Lee off the back of his previous films, and the gamble paid off as "Sense & Sensibility" is one of the best cinematic Austen adaptations ever made, with Lee's sense of manners and family life, as well as his warmth and humor, shining through. The plot might be staple Austen fare, but Thompson's screenplay is exceptional, and arguably funnier than the source material. And in Lee's hands, it never feels stuffy or dusty. The director brings out the heartbreak, thanks to an exceptional cast, featuring Thompson, Kate Winslet (in her first role after breaking out in "Heavenly Creatures"), Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, Gemma Jones, Harriet Walter, Hugh Laurie and Imelda Staunton. Almost single-handedly reviving interest in Austen (it was the first English-language film based on the writer's work for half a century), it doesn't exactly reinvent the medium, but it's hard to imagine a better take on the novel than what the director comes up with here.