The Directors Guild of America awards have long gone hand in hand with the Academy Awards. In the 64 years of the award, the DGA winner has been the same Oscar winner 58 times. Not many people would argue that exceptions, which include Ang Lee for Crouching Tiger and Francis Coppola for The Godfather, were less than deserving of their awards. In fact, of all the guild awards, the DGA has been a steady barometer for decades and well respected in the industry.
Until this year.
The surprise with this year’s nominations is actually the lack of surprises. Michel Hazanavicius, director of The Artist, was this year’s only first time nominee. Not to take away anything from Alex Payne (nominated once) or David Fincher (nominated four times in as many years), but Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese are not only previous winners, but they’ve both won the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award as well. Is the DGA out of touch? Were these five directors truly the best craftsman working this year? Most fans and critics tend to disagree. The Gurus of Gold, which include Mark Harris and David Thompson, had Steven Spielberg for War Horse and Terrence Malick for Tree of Life in with Allen and Fincher out. Why such a disconnect between film and director, art and commerce? More importantly, how is the director’s talent evaluated upon viewing the film?
The word ‘vision’ is used often when talking about a director’s effort and as cliché as it may sound, it captures the director’s function most simply and clearly. What the director brings to a story, regardless if it is already in script form, is his vision of how to tell that story on a screen. The director may have a hand in writing (or re-writing), casting or even producing the movie, but almost every aesthetic decision is left to the director on a daily basis. Generally speaking, the look and tone of the film are the base indicators of a director’s influence, so it’s a good starting point.
There has been universal praise for Martin Scorsese’s use of 3-D in Hugo. Of course, it was also correctly viewed as a love letter to early cinema, thus striking a chord with the Guild. However, after a wash of cheap 3-D movies in the past two years, Scorsese’s use of the medium indicates that the technology is capable of more than selling higher priced tickets. If that alone were reason to nominate him, and it certainly seemed to be the basis for James Cameron’s nomination for Avatar, then he is unlikely to win, but it is a deserved nomination. But, for pure visual spectacle could you do better this year than Malick or Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive? While much has been made about The Artist being both a black and white film as well as a silent movie, it still boasts strong performances and a solid story, making the film much more than the sum of it’s parts.
There might not be a more visually striking film from the opening credit’s forward than Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo, but the statement in itself is misleading. However you feel about the film, there’s no disputing the fact that it is the third iteration of the story and the Fincher film has been less than commercially viable for Sony. Personally, adaptations and remakes have to really stand apart from their predecessors to be considered seriously as contenders. Drive and Hugo accomplished that, but The Descendants and Dragon Tattoo did not. Payne seemed better served by his WGA nod than the DGA nomination and as much as I loved Midnight in Paris, the same could be said for Woody Allen. Then, why were these three previous nominees included? Sentimental favorites to be sure, but the glaring omission of Spielberg on the list kills that argument. History shows as well, Spielberg tends to be nominated (and win) for his ‘war’ films, more than his blockbusters, which should have made War Horse an easy pick.
So, the question remains, why? Why these five directors, these five films? As mentioned before, all awards meet at the crossroads of art and commerce. The bigger awards shows want the bigger stars and the bigger movies to draw in bigger audiences and that effect has trickled down to even the prestigious Guild awards in past years. Consider this scenario as a voting member of the DGA. If nominations were sent in at least a week before they were calculated and announced, that would roughly put the submission date at the beginning of the New Year. Logically, since New Year’s fell on a Sunday, that would mean ballots were turned in the week prior, so after Christmas and before New Year’s. Up until that point, there was a huge media campaign for Dragon Tattoo. It wouldn’t be until the week ballots were being turned in that Dragon Tattoo was crushed at the box office and there was open speculation as to whether it was financially viable to produce the remaining films in the trilogy. While it may have seemed like a safe bet at the time, now it looks like an inexplicably earned nomination. Following the money trail further, while Sony can put all it’s money behind one film, a smaller studio like Film District could hardly afford to send out screeners to promote Drive. Despite all the positive reviews, topping many critics’ lists and earning a lot of praise for Refn, Ryan Gosling and Albert Brooks, the film has been shut out by the DGA, WGA, SAG and Cinematographer’s Guild. Does that mean that Drive will be a no show at the Oscars (save for Brooks) and Dragon Tattoo could reap gold? That’s all part of the fun of award season.
For clarity’s sake, if the author had a ballot, it would read as follows – Michel Hazanavicus, The Artist Nicholas Winding Refn, Drive Martin Scorsese, Hugo David Cronenberg, A Dangerous Method Pedro Almodovar- Skin I Live In with Refn as the winner.