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Is it Time for the Oscars to Get Rid of the Best Director Category?

If Greta Gerwig can't even get a Golden Globe nomination for directing "Lady Bird" then what the hell are we even doing here?

“Lady Bird” star Saoirse Ronan and director Greta Gerwig

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The 2018 Golden Globes weren’t exactly short of surreal moments. From an all-black red carpet that (deservedly) overshadowed the show itself, to an emotional acceptance speech by an actor who once referred to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association as “90 nobodies having a wank,” this year’s pageant was a gilded cortege of conflicting emotions, social justice and industry platitudes meted out in equal measure — what else could you expect from something that managed to honor the artistic contributions of both Tommy Wiseau and Oprah Winfrey in the span of a single night? Hell, even the commercials were kind of unsettling.

It was an evening so defined by profound institutional blunders that it felt like par for the course when Natalie Portman decided to shade the HFPA for their all-male roster of Best Director nominees (fun fact: Clint Eastwood and the entire female gender have the same number of nominations in this category, but Eastwood has more wins). When Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” won the Golden Globe Award for Best Picture — Musical or Comedy just a few minutes later, the show might as well have been scripted to underline Portman’s point: Sexism is when you would rather would rather pretend that a movie directed itself than induct a woman into the boys’ club.

“All the Money in the World”

But while it’s no great mystery why Gerwig was overlooked, her snub raises some other interesting questions about the structure of Hollywood’s current awards process and the significance of a Best Director prize. Less urgent, more semantic questions like: Why did Ridley Scott effectively take Gerwig’s place, even though his “All the Money in the World” wasn’t even afforded a Best Picture nomination? How do the Academy, the HFPA, and just about every other voting body on the planet manage to separate the art from the artist at a time when most of us are finding that to be increasingly difficult? What is someone actually being awarded for doing when they win Best Director, and — if we don’t have a clear answer for that — should we consider eliminating the category altogether?

In order to apply any constructive logic to this issue, we first have to cop to the fact that ranking art is an inherently illogical practice to begin with, and that trying to reverse-engineer the components of a film you didn’t make is like trying to guess the ingredients of a soup you didn’t cook: Your senses can take you most of the way there, but unless you were in the kitchen then you really don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. That might be truer of some departments than it is of others — the case could be made that makeup design is a more self-contained element than cinematography, for example — but you don’t have to be a card-carrying auteurist to appreciate that movies are more than the sum of their cleanly divisible parts. As Sidney Lumet once put it: “The only three people who know how good or bad the editing was: The editor, the director, and the cameraman.”

“Lady Bird”

A24

That notion is doubly true when it comes to directing, a discipline that expresses itself through an infinite series of undefined choices. The parameters of those choices and the freedoms granted to make them are different on every film, but each aspect of a movie is understood to be at least somewhat reflective of the director’s input.

Can an actor deliver a good performance without good direction? Possibly. Can a composer write an unforgettable score without a filmmaker’s input? Absolutely. Bad movies happen to brilliant craftspeople all the time (lest anyone need to be reminded that “Suicide Squad” won an Oscar for Best Makeup), but cinema is alchemy, and individual work tends to shine brightest when it serves the story. Film isn’t just a collaborative medium because it distills so many different art forms, it’s also a collaborative medium because of how different kinds of artists align their talents towards a common goal.

With a strikingly idiosyncratic project like “The Shape of Water,” it’s pretty easy to appreciate how each detail has been filtered through the director’s vision. Credit might be a touch less transparent when it comes to a comparatively naturalistic piece like “Lady Bird,” but that merely disguises the importance of Gerwig’s role. The job is still to marshall a million different things towards serving a coherent whole, whether by taking charge or by simply hiring talented people and giving them the space they need to work their magic.

So — even if you don’t tacitly accept that a director is the “true” artistic voice behind a film — it stands to reason that a director is effectively being recognized with every award their movie wins. An Oscar for Best Actor is an Oscar for Best Director. An Oscar for Best Production Design is an Oscar for Best Director. An Oscar for Best Sound Editing is… well, you get the idea. And if it’s true that every component of a film owes at least something to the director, then wouldn’t an Oscar for Best Picture be an Oscar for Best Director as well?

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