What makes a great director? Is it more about the technical visual achievement that we can see on screen? Is it about getting exceptional performances from the actors? For a great director, it’s both. For a Best Director of any given year, as so named by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, one or the other might do. This year, for instance, Alfonso Cuaron is the frontrunner for the Oscar, and his recognition is mostly based on the film being “an absolute technical marvel in every possible way,” as our own review from Kate Erbland puts it. Like James Cameron before him, Cuaron will be honored for work where the performances from the cast weren’t as much a priority as the performances from the camera and special effects.
Yet also like Cameron, Cuaron has been paired with a Best Actress nomination for his leading lady. Sandra Bullock has won an Oscar in the past for her acting, but she still surprised many with her performance in Gravity. Do we have Cuaron to thank for that? It’s hard to tell. He’s never really gotten bad work from his actors before, but he’s certainly not thought of as an actor’s director in the way his four companions in the category are. This is his first instance of directing an Oscar nominated performance. Including this year’s additions, Martin Scorsese has 22 under his belt, David O. Russell has 11, Alexander Payne has 7 and Steve McQueen has 3 — of course, McQueen’s are all new, but that’s only because the Academy was blind the year Hunger came out.
It’s not common lately to have all five Best Director contenders joined by acting nominations. In the past two decades it’s happened before only in ceremonies held in 2011, 2000 and 1997. More notable about this year is that 12 of the 20 acting nominations come from movies also nominated for Best Director. That’s a number that hasn’t been reached in 35 years, and that would still be the case without Bullock’s nomination. Only five other years have seen as high as 12 and only two years did better with 13 (the award years of 1967 and 1978). Not that the last few years have consistently been much lower, although the award year of 2011 saw only 3, a record low if we don’t count the early ’30s, when there were fewer acting categories, and therefore nominations, and often fewer directors nominated.
What this tells us about the past year’s movies or this year’s Academy voters isn’t clear. Does it mean we had great movies from directors who were especially good with their actors? Does it mean some of the directors were merely working with casts that could be depended on, on their own, to deliver great performances? Was the Academy too lazy to look elsewhere for acting nominees? Was there not much else out there with great performances? Years in which acting nominees primarily come from movies not by Best Director contenders indicate a variety that we don’t see represented this year. Two years ago, when only 3 came from movies up for Best Director, the acting nominees came from 14 different titles. This year’s it’s 10, which doesn’t seem drastically different, but that’s the lowest since 1982, when there were only 9 different titles with acting nominations.
I’ve been looking at this year’s Best Director race as really about two nominees, Cuaron and Russell, and the main angle on that match is that you’ve got the more technical-minded director and the more performance-minded director. Cuaron’s movie has the least acting nominations of the directors and Russell’s movie, American Hustle, has the most with four. But even though Russell tends to garner terrific work from his actors, including the early non-nominated movies like Spanking the Monkey, Flirting With Disaster and Three Kings, I’m not convinced he deserves the credit, especially with Hustle, which has a talented cast that seems to be doing their own things, and there’s not a lot of consistency. That indicates the performances are good by themselves but not directed cohesively by Russell. I guess he was good to them by giving them that freedom, but it wasn’t good for the movie.
I’d like to see Russell push an actor or actress we don’t think of as being Oscar caliber to a nomination. Someone even less likely than Bradley Cooper, that is. It’s one thing to get nominations from the same people you’ve gotten them from before or from former nominees in general. Actors’ directors like Scorsese, Payne, Milos Foreman, Woody Allen (who is now up to 18 acting noms from his movies, though it’s debatable whether he mainly attracts great talent more than he pulls talent out of stars), Mike Nichols, James Mangold, Steven Soderbergh and Paul Thomas Anderson are among those living filmmakers who could possibly get at least a decent performance out of anyone. Russell, I have doubts about. McQueen, too. Cuaron, definitely.
And yet Cuaron got this amazing performance out of Bullock. She certainly had a lot to do with it, but considering how much was technically driven about Gravity you have to realize that the performances are part of that. This wasn’t the sort of open stage that you get with Hustle and the other three Best Director-nominated movies. We probably can credit Cuaron with a good deal of what wound up on the screen in terms of a consistent emotional performance. That was one of pieces of the technical marvel. (If only the script was as precisely attended to.) So, does Cuaron deserve the award come March 5th? No, McQueen or Scorsese are great directors who were far more complete in their achievements of the technical and the performance elements. But I’d be a lot less disappointed if Cuaron wins than Russell.