Why This Year’s Best Picture/Director Split Means Something New for The Oscars

By  · Published on February 27th, 2017

Analyzing The Academy’s willingness to split the ticket for its two biggest awards.

Ever since film critic Andrew Sarris popularized auteurism (the French idea that the director is the primary author behind a film) in the United States in the 1960s, a quiet debate has ensued over why the Academy has separate awards for Best Director and Best Picture. One wouldn’t award different Pulitzers for Best Author and Best Book, so the argument goes. Of course, filmmaking isn’t so simple: even when a director imposes enormous authorial control over a film, the end result is still necessarily collaborative. From a purely practical standpoint, producers need to be recognized somehow, and their work is even more difficult to separate from the whole than is a director’s. The Academy generally avoids this paradox by awarding Best Picture and Best Director to the same film, a result that has occurred 63 times out of the 88 total shows.

But among the 25 exceptions, an interesting trend has emerged: the film awarded best director is typically the more challenging film, technically or thematically, while the best picture winner tends to be more escapist or otherwise accessible. Notable examples include:

– Oliver Stone wins Best Director for Born on the Fourth of July; Driving Miss Daisy wins Best Picture

– Steven Spielberg wins Best Director for Saving Private Ryan; Shakespeare in Love wins Best Picture

– Steven Soderbergh wins Best Director for Traffic; Gladiator wins Best Picture

– Roman Polanski wins Best Director for The Pianist; Chicago wins Best Picture

– Ang Lee wins Best Director for Brokeback Mountain; Crash wins Best Picture

This trend is not all that surprising, given how the Academy votes: directors choose Best Director, while everyone votes on Best Picture. But because stylistic innovation often parallels thematic bravery, the Best Director/Best Picture split has taken on quasi-political undertones. (On this front, the Best Picture/Best Screenplay splits are even more stark.) One particularly instructive example was Warren Beatty’s 1982 Best Director win for Reds, a masterful biopic about a noted communist journalist. Chariots of Fire took home Best Picture that year.

It is fitting, then, that Beatty should be the one to oversee the reversal of this trend. Last night, Damien Chazelle won Best Director for La La Land, the most escapist film in the running, while Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight won Best Picture. As if to heighten the gravitas of the moment, Beatty and Faye Dunaway psyched out the audience by initially announcing that La La Land had won Best Picture. This would not have been a surprising result had it been true, but as our Neil Miller anticipated, something felt different about this year. In part because of last year’s #OscarsSoWhite backlash, in part because of the unique amount of diverse talent on display this year, and in part because Moonlight was so fucking good, it seemed that the split would favor the more challenging film – and it did.

None of this is to belittle Damien Chazelle’s flabbergasting work on La La Land, which undoubtedly topped the other directors on stage for technical mastery. Purely from an execution standpoint, Chazelle’s film could certainly be called “challenging,” not to mention the difficulty of getting a postmodern musical made in the contemporary studio system. But one suspects this would have been even more challenging were Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone both gay black men played by unknown actors, as evidenced by the fact that Moonlight was the lowest-budgeted, least widely seen of the Best Picture nominees.

Moonlight and La La Land are both terrific films, and comparing their merits artistically isn’t half as useful as studying and lauding them both. But as a symbol of cultural progress, Moonlight’s Best Picture win may mark a new era for the Academy – one in which pushing the frontiers of empathy and representation gets rewarded the way mass appeal once was.

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