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20 Celebrated Filmmakers Who Never Won A Best Directing Oscar

20 Celebrated Filmmakers Who Never Won A Best Directing Oscar

For better or worse (which at this time of year, as the punditry reaches its hyperbolic event horizon, usually feels like worse) an Academy Award is the highest honor anyone in the film industry can receive. But of course, like any large organization—even one that wasn’t, as of 2012, reportedly 94% white, 77% male and 86% over the age of 50—the AMPAS gets things wrong (shocking, we know). Sometimes due to the politicking of insiders, sometimes because the wind shifts, and yes, sometimes because of plain old-fashioned bias, the membership votes to award the lesser film, or the lesser performance, or the lesser accomplishment, while the greater one stays seated after the envelope is opened—if they’re there at all.

You’ve seen it happen time and time again: it’s bad enough for an actor, but while theirs is the most competitive and largest block, there are four acting categories each time, divided by gender, and an actor can technically appear in several films in a single year. Directors, on the other hand, often spend at least a couple of years attached to a single project (unless they’re Woody Allen), so their chance to hop on the Best Director carousel, which only seats five anyway, comes by much less often. Which makes miscarriages of justice in this arena both more inevitable and more galling.

In part this is down to the statistical likelihood that a Best Picture winner will also take Best Director (as indeed feels logical—always a bit strange that the director of the Best Picture doesn’t get to take the podium for that award unless he or she is also a producer) as has happened in 63 out of the 85 cases to date. And we all know how notoriously fickle the Best Picture slot can be (our evidently “controversial” ranking of the 85 Best Picture winners is here). Taking all of these factors into consideration, it’s not surprising that some of the biggest directors in film history have come away empty handed. So we wanted to show them a little love.

A word or two on who we’re covering: this is solely about the Best Directing Oscar so while some of the below may have been awarded in other areas like screenplay or even as a producer, or received Lifetime Achievement placebos, they’ve never been named Best Director. And we decided to confine ourselves to directors for whom winning in the future is either impossible, or, as in the case of Jean-Luc Godard, highly improbable (he’d likely not accept anyway!). So we won’t be featuring David Lynch (3 directing nominations, no wins), Christopher Nolan (0 directing nominations), David Fincher (2 nominations), Jane Campion (1 nom), Terry Gilliam (0 noms), Terrence Malick, (2 noms), Darren Aronofsky (1 nom), Spike Lee (0 noms), Paul Thomas Anderson (1 nom), David Cronenberg (0 noms) and so on, as least some of whom will surely pick up a Directing statue in future years. Our 20 picks below are all people for whom the book on that is firmly closed—as surprising, baffling or saddening as that might be.

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999)
Directing Nominations: “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) and “Barry Lyndon” (1975)
Other Oscar History: All of the above, bar “2001,” received Best Picture nominations, and Kubrick was nominated for co-writing the screenplays for all four plus 1987’s “Full Metal Jacket.” Kubrick’s sole Oscar win was for Best Visual Effects for “2001,” though he wasn’t present at the awards ceremony.
What Should They Have Won For? Tough one. Almost any of the above would have been good choices, along with “The Shining,” though that, as a horror flick, was never likely to be in the Academy’s wheelhouse. But if we had to pick just one, let’s go for “2001,” which in a career that made a lot of cinematic history, made the most. It’s Kubrick’s most experimental, most meticulous and most groundbreaking picture, and the sort of thing that a director deserves to be recognized for. It’s the film that, even with several close rivals, will be the one that he’s remembered for, and certainly feels like the one that should have won him the Oscar.

Alfred Hitchock (1899-1980)
Directing Nominations: Rebecca” (1940), “Lifeboat” (1944), “Spellbound” (1945), “Rear Window” (1954) and “Psycho” (1960)
Other Oscar History: Hitchcock is pretty much the corpulent, cigar-chomping poster boy for this list. It’s almost inconceivable that someone who bestrode Hollywood in such a colossal way for so long never won Best Director. Only one of his films won Best Picture: “Rebecca,” (1941) and he lost the Director gong that year to John Ford for “The Grapes of Wrath.” The Academy itself seemed a bit “oh crap what’ve we done?” about it all, giving Hitch the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1968. It is  an honorary Oscar (confusingly not shaped like an Oscar), but even that is awarded to “creative producers” rather than in recognition of directing achievement.
What Should They Have Won For: Sheesh, pick a card. Of his nominations, he should have won for either “Rear Window” or “Psycho,” both brilliant thrillers that in their own way were experimental. But in hindsight, the film he should have won for didn’t even get a nomination (it flopped on initial release): “Vertigo.” It’s a dizzying, daring, dark tour de force of personal passion and perversity wrapped up in incredible craft (not to mention it has the best legacy of any Hitchcock film, replacing “Citizen Kane” on the Sight & Sound greatest of all time list). And if that would have been too hard a sell, then come on, I mean, “North by Northwest” pretty much launched the action/adventure genre with seemingly effortless charm, and “Notorious” too, comes dangerously close to perfection.

Orson Welles (1915-1985)
Directing Nominations: “Citizen Kane” (1941)
Other Oscar History: Welles had two other nods for “Citizen Kane,” one for acting, and one for co-writing the script with Herman Mankiewicz—they won in the latter category, though there was later controversy over who wrote what. Neither were at the ceremony. The same was true in 1971 when Welles was given an Honorary Award by the Academy.
What Should They Have Won For? it would be tough to argue for anything but “Citizen Kane,” given Welles’ relatively brief completed filmography, and that his debut literally changed the face of cinema forever. “The Magnificent Ambersons” and “Touch Of Evil” would both come close, had they been released in their originally intended versions, but both were tinkered with to the extent that an Oscar for Welles would have sent the wrong message. But even so, it’s probably Kane that’s most deserving: the film doesn’t look or sound like anything else that was being made around the time, and might be as influential as any movie ever made.

Robert Altman (1925-2006)
Directing Nominations:  MASH” (1970), “Nashville” (1975), “The Player” (1992), “Short Cuts” (1993) and “Gosford Park” (2001)
Other Oscar History: Surprisingly, no Altman film ever won Best Picture, despite his Academy-friendly ensemble casts. He did get the late-career fillip of an honorary Oscar in 2006, but died just months after receiving that award (when he had quipped that it was premature as he might have another “four decades” of moviemaking in him). Trivia factoid: “There Will Be Blood,” was dedicated to Altman by Paul Thomas Anderson.
What Should They Have Won For: Altman had a long and prolific career—in addition to the films you know, here are 10 you might not—but it feels like the nominations fell about right, even if they never yielded a win. So a case could be made for the wry cynicism of “MASH,” with its pioneering use of overlapping sound (a technique that remained a staple of Altman’s), while “Nashville” may still be the apotheosis of the sweeping-yet-intimate scale he was famous for. But we’re going to go with one of our favorite inside-baseball Hollywood movies ever, “The Player.” Perhaps too pointed and acerbic a satire on the industry to be fully embraced by it, it’s still a major achievement in self-awareness that it manages to be the very thing it sends up: a brilliantly exciting, entertaining, starry Hollywood movie.

Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)
Directing Nominations: “12 Angry Men” (1957), “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), “Network” (1976) and “The Verdict” (1982)
Other Oscar History: All four of those movies received Best Picture nominations, though none won, while documentary “King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery To Memphis,” co-directed with Joseph L. Mankiewicz, got a non-fiction nod. Lumet also received a screenplay nomination, shared with Jay Presson Allen, for 1981’s “Prince Of The City,” and won an honorary award in 2005.
What Should They Have Won For? As our retrospective from a couple years back demonstrated, Lumet’s career was a fascinating one, with a certain amount of dross, but a whole brace of classics. He’s the rare filmmaker who made one of his best films after receiving a lifetime achievement award (2007’s “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead“) but the Academy otherwise did nominate the right pictures from his résumé. It’s almost impossible to pick between “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Network” in particular, but the latter might edge it for us when it comes to the Directing Oscar. Lumet was always an unshowy filmmaker, and one atypically devoted to the writer. Both are very much writer’s movies, but “Network” is more stylish and a bit more willing to depart from reality (like in the famous Ned Beatty scene), which makes it a more obvious showcase for Lumet’s talents.

Howard Hawks (1896-1977)
Directing Nominations: “Sergeant York” (1941)
Other Oscar History: Oftentimes when you look into the history of Oscar snubs, you find that rival organizations like the Globes or the Director’s Guild have redressed the injustice somewhat. But that’s not the case for the brilliant, genre-hopping Hawks, who turned out some of the finest Golden Age comedies, but was only ever nominated, even by the DGA, for his more “serious” fare (“Sergeant York” was a patriotic smash hit that was in theaters when Pearl Harbor was attacked). He did get an Honorary Oscar in 1975, but damn, as the director of some of our personal favorite classic Hollywood films, this one still hurts.
What Should They Have Won For: At the non-screwball end of the spectrum, Hawks turned in stone-cold classics “To Have and Have Not,” and “The Big Sleep” both starring Bogie and Bacall. But if we have to choose his pinnacle it’ll be from his comedy catalogue—an area notoriously overlooked by the Academy through the years. And that doesn’t make it much easier: “Ball of Fire,” and “Twentieth Century” are nearly at the races, but it comes down to a Sophie’s Choice between “His Girl Friday” and “Bringing Up Baby,” both of which star Cary Grant and both of which are such touchstones of differing comedy styles (rapid-fire wisecrackery vs. screwball) that we can’t choose between them. Don’t make us.

Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977)
Directing Nominations: None. Yes, you read that right. Well, technically none.
Other Oscar History: Another exclusion that strains the bounds of our credulity, Chaplin is a really an atypical case, in that he actually had 3 Oscars, but none of them were for Directing: one was for Score and the two others honorary. While the second honorary one was a Lifetime recognition-type deal, the first is where the dubiousness of Chaplin even being on this list at all crops up: at the first ever Academy Award ceremony his four nominations, including one in a subsequently defunct category “Best Director of a Comedy Picture” were quashed in favor of giving him a Special Award “for versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing ‘The Circus.’” So he kind of did win for directing, except, since that is now officially listed as an Honorary Award, and with Lewis Milestone taking that year’s Comedy Directing Oscar, he kind of didn’t.
What Should They Have Won For: In any case, “The Circus” wouldn’t be our pick for Chaplin’s crowning achievement. In fact, had he won for “The Kid,” or “The Gold Rush,” no one would be complaining, but really “Modern Times,” “The Great Dictator” or “City Lights” are the touchstones, with maybe ‘Times’ just shading it for us, today, because of its perennially relevant themes and its iconic design—not least an end shot which may simply one of the most perfect single images in cinema history.

Sergio Leone (1929-1989)
Directing Nominations: None. Not a bloody one (though “Once Upon A Time In America” got him Golden Globe and BAFTA nods).
Other Oscar History: Nothing. The closest Leone came was an honorary Oscar for composer Ennio Morricone, and the Best Picture win for Clint Eastwood‘s “Unforgiven,” a film dedicated in part to Leone. He wasn’t around for either though, having died in 1989.
What Should They Have Won For? Leone is of the very best directors most comprehensively ignored by the Academy (Quentin Tarantino considers “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” the best-directed film in history), but it’s sort of understandable to see why he was passed over. His reputation is one that’s only grown greater over the years; at the time, his ‘Dollars’ trilogy were considered foreign-made cheapies, while “Once Upon A Time In America” was released in the U.S. in severely truncated form, receiving more love internationally than in the States. The latter, in theory, was probably his most awards-friendly picture, given that Westerns are often overlooked by the Academy, but we might lean towards “Once Upon A Time In The West,” his final, epic Western, a more elegaic and rich film than the Man With No Name ones, with a measured pace and a near-blasphemous take on American iconography (if only for its casting of Henry Fonda as a villainous child-killer). It’s a defining picture, both for the genre and for its filmmaker.

Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947)
Directing Nominations: “The Patriot” (1928), “The Love Parade” (1929) and “Heaven Can Wait” (1943)
Other Oscar History: Lubitsch won an Honorary Award in 1947, a few months before his death. All three of the films he received directing nods for picked up Best Picture nominations, as did 1931’s “The Smiling Lieutenant,” 1932’s “One Hour With You” and 1939’s “Ninotchka
What Should They Have Won For? Lubitsch had a remarkable 40-year career, and shaped the Hollywood comedy for years to come, so it’s a bit depressing that he was overlooked to this extent (especially given that one of the films for which he was nominated, “The Patriot,” is lost, which seems wildly unfair). But if we had to pick one, it’d be a film that, like several of Lubitsch’s best, was almost entirely ignored by the Academy, receiving only a single nomination, for Best Original Score—1942’s “To Be Or Not To Be.” A rare flop for the director, attacked by critics who misunderstood it as irresponsible for making fun of the Nazis, and tainted by the death of star Carole Lombard in a plane crash two months before release, the tale of actors taking on the Nazis is a total delight from the first frame, deliriously funny but darker and more substantial than even the director’s most joyous other comedies. And if you need to know where to start with Lubitsch, be sure to check out our list of his essential films.

Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959)
Directing Nominations: “The Greatest Show On Earth” (1953)
Other Oscar History: DeMille won not just one, but two honorary awards: the first in 1950, the second, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, in ’53. The same year also saw him win a Best Picture Oscar for “The Greatest Show On Earth,” and he was nominated for the same prize for 1956’s “The Ten Commandments.” 1934’s “Cleopatra” also picked up a nod there.
What Should They Have Won For? Well, given that we just called it the worst-ever Best Picture winner, we probably aren’t going to say “The Greatest Show On Earth.” In general, DeMille was more of a populist showman than a critical favorite, respected for his ability to create spectacle, but attacked for the crude nature of his work—the Michael Bay of his day, as it were. So our heart isn’t especially broken that DeMille was never given the Oscar, but at the same time, he’s such a key Hollywood figure that it does feel like a notable absence. So if we had to pick one, we’d probably go for “The Ten Commandments.” Not only was it his final film, but the nearly-four-hour Biblical epic still remains a glorious piece of spectacle, enough so that Ridley Scott‘s upcoming “Exodus” will have quite a task topping it, even with all the modern CGI effects it’ll undoubtedly use.

Akira Kurosawa (1936-1993)
Directing Nominations: “Ran” (1985)
Other Oscar History: While this is a trickier area, as the Academy is not known for embracing foreign-language films or filmmakers in categories other than Best Foreign Language Film, (Michael Haneke’s Director nomination for “Amour” being a recent, rare exception), there is technically no reason why they are not just as eligible. And in some cases, the quality of the output is simply impossible to ignore. This was certainly the case with Akira Kurosawa, with the Academy eventually nominating him as director for the “King Lear” riff “Ran,” and also giving him an Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1990, while back in 1951 “Rashomon” had been awarded another discretionary Oscar for Outstanding Foreign Film in the days before the modern Foreign Language Film Oscar had been established.
What Should They Have Won For: Oh, man. Everyone has their favorite, and “Seven Samurai” is probably his most famous and influential, but since we can’t please everyone we’re just going to please ourselves and go for outsider “Ikiru.” Notionally one of the least immediate of his films, it is the tiny, immaculate tale (based on a Tolstoy short story) of a minor bureaucrat’s attempts to build a playground. And that is it, but just writing that gave us chills and if we think about it too much we’ll cry. So yes, “Ikiru.”

Stanley Kramer (1913-2001)
Directing Nominations: “The Defiant Ones” (1958), “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961) and “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” (1967)
Other Oscar History: The same year he was nominated for ‘Nuremberg,’ Kramer was awarded the Irving G. Thalberg honorary Oscar (he had been a producer for more than a decade, on films including “High Noon,” prior to turning to directing.) His three Directing noms also were up for Best Picture, though none won. “The Defiant Ones,” however, snagged 8 nominations in total, winning Cinematography and Screenplay.
What Should They Have Won For: Perhaps not as instantly recognizable or forehead-slapping a name here as some others, Kramer was nonetheless a major player—a director who made his name in the kind of social issues dramas the Academy often favors (for their “serious” import) while also dipping briefly into comedy with the gonzo folly that is “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” But while he can seem over-earnest and self-important in some of the topics he tackled (Nazism, racism, nuclear war in “On the Beach,” the teaching of evolution in “Inherit the Wind”), he often coaxed excellent performances, which bettered the material in the case of ‘Dinner,’ and which, in “The Defiant Ones,” gave rise to his best film. Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis (jointly nominated) are both terrific as the shackled-together convicts escaping a chain gang, and Kramer should have won that year. Especially over, of all things, Vincente Minnelli for the gossamer-thin “Gigi.”

Fritz Lang (1890-1976)
Directing Nominations: None. Boo, Academy, boo!
Other Oscar History: Lang, despite being a preternatural genius in the medium who turned in more than a handful of absolute classics, was probably overlooked because his films, aside from a couple of popular westerns, were largely in the hard-boiled, film noir genre which the Academy traditionally had little time for. However, this relative neglect of his oeuvre, along with the distinctly authorial imprint of his dark, pessimistic sensibility made him prime reclamation fodder for the Cahiers du Cinema crowd. So along with Hitchcock, Lang is now held up as a prime, founding example of a Hollywood auteur.
What Should They Have Won For: While Lang’s “M” is a masterpiece of disquiet, and the silent “Metropolis” is a beautiful, prescient science fiction film whose poster still adorns a million dormitory walls, both were made in Germany prior to Lang fleeing the Nazi regime, and as such would not have really been at the Oscar races. However, along with a clutch of strong films like “Fury,” “You Only Live Once” “While the City Sleeps” and “Scarlet Street” it’s probably “The Big Heat” that is the Hollywood pic he should have won for—an absolute classic of the film noir genre, featuring Gloria Grahame, Glenn Ford and a deeply menacing, coffee-throwing Lee Marvin, it writhes and revels in its seedy moral ambiguity.

Federico Fellini (1920-1993)
Directing Nominations: “La Dolce Vita” (1960), “8 1/2” (1963), “Satyricon” (1969) and “Amarcord” (1973)
Other Oscar History: Fellini has won more Foreign Language Oscars than anyone else, for “La Strada,” “Nights Of Cabiria,” “8 1/2” and “Amarcord.” He also picked up screenwriting nominations for co-writing Rossellini’s “Rome, Open City” and “Paisa,” plus his own “La Strada,” “I Vitelloni,” “La Dolce Vita,” “8 1/2,” “Amarcord,” and “Fellini’s Casanova,” plus an honorary award in 1993, just before his death.
What Should They Have Won For? The rare foreign-language filmmaker who became an Academy darling, you could hardly say that Fellini got a raw deal from them, but it still sticks in the craw a bit that he was never rewarded as a director, given that he’s, you know, one of the best the medium ever saw. Your mileage may vary from film to film, but most would likely agree that “8 1/2” would be the most deserving film to recognize him with. It’s a semi-autobiographical masterpiece that’s also probably the greatest ever film about filmmaking, entirely beautiful, entertaining, inventive and, perhaps most importantly, couldn’t have been made by anyone else. That he was beaten by Tony Richardson for “Tom Jones” is, frankly, sort of baffling.

Sam Peckinpah (1925-1984)
Directing Nominations: None
Other Oscar History: Peckinpah was only nominated the once, for co-writing the screenplay to 1969’s “The Wild Bunch.” None of his other movies made much of an awards impact.
What Should They Have Won For? Given the blood-soaked nature of many of his films, and his super-macho outsider nature, that the Academy didn’t recognize Peckinpah isn’t a shocker. But it certainly would have shaken the place up. “The Wild Bunch” is probably the film that was most likely to crack the awards season, but we’re personally fonder of his early ’70s work, and given the initially repulsed reaction to “Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia,” that probably leaves “Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid.” In its uncut version at least (the film was released in a cut truncated by nearly twenty minutes), the film is probably Peckinpah’s masterpiece, quieter and stranger and richer and more beautiful than his other Westerns, or indeed his other films. 

Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)
Directing Nominations: Cries and Whispers” (1972) and “Fanny and Alexander” (1982)
Other Oscar History: Three of Bergman’s films won Best Foreign Film: “The Virgin Spring” “Through a Glass Darkly” and “Fanny and Alexander,” which is a feat though not a record (Fellini directed four Foreign Film winners). Bergman was also nominated five times for screenplay, while “Cries and Whispers” additionally got a Best Picture nod, losing that year to “The Sting.” He also received the 1971 Irving G. Thalberg honorary Oscar, or at least Liv Ullmann did on his behalf; Bergman did not attend the ceremony.
What Should They Have Won For: Again, this is a tremendously difficult call as Bergman is without doubt one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and has a filmography in which even minor entries for him, would be career highs for anyone else. Subjective as it is, and while Bergman himself is said to have regarded “Winter Light” and “Cries and Whispers” as his personal favorites, we’re going to go with “Fanny and Alexander” because it did get him a nomination, because it represents a kind of smorgasbord of everything that is quintessentially Bergman, but also because it is completely, adorably accessible without compromising an ounce of its profundity.

Jean-Luc Godard (1930-)
Directing Nominations: Zip. Zero. Nil. Nada.
Other Oscar History: Godard was awarded an Honorary Oscar in 2011. Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t at the ceremony, and despite AMPAS reps saying that he was appreciative, the director told an interviewer that the notion meant “nothing” to him, adding “Which of my films have they seen? Do they actually know my films?”
What Should They Have Won For? Unlike pal/rival Francois Truffaut (who was nominated three times, including a director nod for “Day For Night,” which also won Best Foreign Language Film), Godard was never welcomed into the bosom of the Academy. And it’s not wildly surprising, since the director never really gave a shit back in the day, let alone by the time he won an honorary prize. Plus there’s barely a decade of even vaguely accessible work before Godard’s output became more and more radical and political (though the early ’80s saw some more Academy-friendly fare, relatively speaking). But can you imagine the shockwave it would have caused had “Breathless” won Best Director in 1960? Admittedly, it would have meant Billy Wilder missing out for “The Apartment,” but the film arguably remains Godard’s finest hour, and pretty much changed cinema forever, so it would be a worthy substitute.

Otto Preminger 
Directing Nominations: “Laura” (1944) and “The Cardinal” (1963)
Other Oscar History: Despite a string of popular and critical hits, Preminger never really racked up that much AMPAS success—his sole other nomination came with a Best Picture nod for “Anatomy Of A Murder” in 1959.
What Should They Have Won For?Skidoo,” of course! That’s a joke, clearly, but it’s sort of puzzling that someone like Preminger, whose films often feel like, on the surface, that they should be very Academy-friendly, got so little love. Wins for “Carmen Jones,” “Saint Joan,” “Porgy And Bess,” “Anatomy Of A Murder” and even “Advise & Consent,” none of which he was nominated for, would all have been deserved to various degrees, but ultimately it’s film-noir classic “Laura” that we’d have given him the prize for (or at least let it share with “Double Indemnity,” released the same year—both were beaten by the deeply puzzling choice of Leo McCarey for “Going My Way.“) “Laura” is suspenseful, stylish, beautifully crafted and something of a high watermark for the noir genre. No film would have been a better way to recognize Preminger’s impressive, if erratic, career.

Arthur Penn (1922-2010)
Directing Nominations: “The Miracle Worker” (1962), “Bonnie & Clyde” (1967) and “Alice’s Restaurant” (1969)
Other Oscar History: “Bonnie & Clyde” was a Best Picture nominee, though it lost to “In The Heat Of The Night.” “The Miracle Worker” picked up four other nominations, winning Best Actress and Supporting Actress (but no Best Picture nod). Meanwhile “Alice’s Restaurant” stands almost alone in history by picking up only a Best Director nomination and nothing else.
What Should They Have Won For? Though there are a few other really strong films in his career (most notably “Night Moves,” which we adore, but which is very much not an Academy movie), it would unquestionably have to go to “Bonnie & Clyde.” Sure, Penn might have been borrowing some of his moves from the Nouvelle Vague crowd (he only took the project after both Godard and Truffaut passed), but he unpacks them into a very American setting, giving contemporary energy to the Depression-era tale, and making a truly seminal and game-changing piece of work in the process. People are still cribbing from “Bonnie & Clyde,” and that alone feels like it should be enough to win him the Oscar.

John Cassavetes (1929-1989)
Directing Nominations: “A Woman Under The Influence” (1974)
Other Oscar History: Cassavetes was nominated not just as a director but also as an actor (for “The Dirty Dozen” in 1967), and as a writer, for Original Screenplay in 1968 for “Faces.” He never made it into the Best Picture field, though. Wife Gena Rowlands was also nominated for “A Woman Under The Influence,” and again for “Gloria.”
What Should They Have Won For? Cassavetes was such a pioneer on the indie scene that it’s surprising that he ever came within a sniff of Oscar as a writer or director, but it says something of the experimental spirit of the Academy in the late ’60s and early ’70s that he did pick up a couple of nominations, although it probably helped that he was already a familiar name (and indeed, a nominee) as a character actor. The director’s low-key, low-budget, hand-held work is far enough outside the mainstream that it would be lucky to get a Spirit Award nomination these days, so that he got an Academy nod alone feels like a victory. But it would have been great to see him pick up a statue, given how massively influential he is, and if we had to pick a favorite, it’d be “Opening Night.” Overlooked entirely by the Academy, the tale of an actress on the verge of a nervous breakdown is masterfully made and acted, but the film was attacked by critics at the time, and barely even got a release.

Suggestions for further study if you’re fascinated by this sort of thing include King Vidor (five directing nominations, no wins), great British director Michael Powell (zero nominations), early cinema pioneers D.W. Griffith, the wonderful F.W. Murnau and Chaplin contemporary Buster Keaton—all also with no directing nominations, though in many cases their best work simply happened before the Academy Awards were established. And lastly, less well known perhaps, but notably unrewarded after several nominations are Richard Brooks (three noms), and Clarence Brown (six noms, two coming in the one year, yet still no cigar). Which out of these unlucky fellows do you regard as the most unfairly overlooked in the category? Tell us, in the form of a stern reprimand to the Academy, in the comments section below. —Jessica Kiang, Oli Lyttelton

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