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Oscar Watch: Why Actor-Directors Have the Advantage at the Oscars

Photo of John Anderson By John Anderson | Thompson on Hollywood February 21, 2013 at 1:22PM

What’s been overlooked amid all the wringing of hands, gnashing of teeth and what-were-they-thinking hysteria surrounding Ben Affleck’s alleged “snub” as a Best Director nominee, is the degree to which the director’s branch has defied Oscar history. “Argo” is a fine, sturdy entertainment, a movie everyone should be proud of.
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Globes Affleck
Globes Affleck

What’s been overlooked amid all the wringing of hands, gnashing of teeth and what-were-they-thinking hysteria surrounding Ben Affleck’s alleged “snub” as a Best Director nominee, is the degree to which the director’s branch has defied Oscar history. “Argo” is a fine, sturdy entertainment, a movie everyone should be proud of.

Or at least, not embarrassed by; if it wins on Sunday, it won’t go down in infamy alongside such Best Picture winners as say, “Braveheart,” “Dances with Wolves” or “Ordinary People” (which is really only a lingering outrage because it beat out “Raging Bull” in 1980). All of those films were directed by actors-turned-directors.

Robert Redford at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival
Robert Redford at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival

So was “Hamlet” “Annie Hall,” and “Gandhi.”  Oscar watchers have long known that movies by actors who’ve gone behind the camera have a decided advantage among the general membership of the Academy, which is of course, actor-dominated.

If Affleck was “snubbed”—the word most often used to describe his being overlooked by the directors branch – it’s because Academy history has made actors feel entitled.

Here are some of the actors who’ve been chosen Best Director

1977 Woody Allen “Annie Hall”)

1980 Robert Redford (“Ordinary People”)

1981 Warren Beatty (“Reds’)

1982 Richard Attenborough (“Gandhi”))

1990 Kevin Costner (“Dances With Wolves”)

1992 Clint Eastwood ("Unforgiven’)

1995 Mel Gibson (“Braveheart”)

2001 Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind’)

2004 Eastwood (“Million Dollar Baby”)

Admittedly, Eastwood and Howard had already established well-defined identities as directors long before they won; younger voters might not even have been aware they were ever in front of the camera. But the other choices indicate a pretty clear bias towards actors, the membership being dominated by… actors. And especially when you consider some of the competition: Redford was up against Scorsese (“Raging Bull”); Allen against both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas (“Close Encounters” and “Star Wars”); Attenborough, lofted along on a wave of Hollywood sanctimony, beat Spielberg (“E.T.”), Sydney Pollack (“Tootsie”), Sidney Lumet (“The Verdict”), and Wolfgang Petersen (“Das Boot’), all of whose films seem decidedly more appetizing now than three hours of Ben Kingsley in a diaper.    

What do Laurence Olivier and Todd Field have in common? They’re both actors who weren’t nominated as Best Director, but whose films in fact were (Olivier’s “Henry V” in 1945, Field’s “In the Bedroom” in 2002). But Olivier’s “Hamlet” won Best Picture in 1945, and he too was nominated. The general drift, whether commentators are even aware of it, is that Affleck was entitled to a nomination, and this has been invaluable to “Argo” as it has made its way through the various award shows, knocking off statuettes en route to the big payoff Sunday. Of course, as long as the Academy is going to nominate more than five films and only five directors, there are going to be “snubs.” But they won’t always be quite so advantageous to a picture. 

This article is related to: Ben Affleck, Argo, Robert Redford, Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood, Awards, Awards, Oscars


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.