The Best Director category has been a staple of the Academy Awards right from the start, with the great Frank Borzage earning the 1927 prize for “7th Heaven,” and Lewis Milestone — representing the comedy division — taking home a trophy for “Two Arabian Nights.” As for the guy who directed “Wings,” the first movie to ever win Best Picture? He wasn’t even nominated. That sort of disconnect made a bit more sense in an era when the studios held all the power and directors were largely regarded as hired hands, but the Oscars would provide an accurate reflection of how power dynamics shifted on an average film set, and the Best Director prize quickly became the most reliable predictor of Best Picture.
As of today, Best Picture and Best Director have been awarded to the same film 63 times in 89 years, a statistic that would seem to suggest that voting members of the film industry predominately believe the best-directed movie of the year is also the best movie of the year, and vice-versa. But the plot thickens: Four of those times have been in the last six years, and there’s a good chance that Christopher Nolan will split the winners again this March.
So what’s changed? Has our understanding of a director’s role been transformed by new production models, or is the phenomenon owed to something much dumber than that? Those answers may not be mutually exclusive in the end, but come on… it’s 2018 — utter nonsense is usually the best explanation for everything.
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Two words: Preferential ballots.
Once upon a time, the Academy Award for Best Picture was selected in the same fashion as every other category: Everyone got a vote, and the film with the most votes won. Starting in 1934, however, AMPAS decided to switch things up and have its members rank all of the nominees in order of preference, effectively anticipating the Rotten Tomatoes approach by favoring films that were broadly liked over more divisive films that were fiercely loved. Naturally, applying different voting systems to different categories tended to result in different winners, though landmark releases like “Gone with the Wind” and “Casablanca” helped balance things out by sweeping so many of the major prizes.
Preferential ballots were abolished in 1945, and over time Best Picture and Best Director winners began to sync up. Between 1980 and 2009, the awards were only given to different films on six occasions; in the ’90s, the overlap was 9 for 10. The economy was booming, DVDs were making everyone rich, and the kingdom was at peace.
And then internet streaming went up, Oscar telecast ratings went down, and someone had the bright idea of going back to preferential ballots. The logic was that a weighted system of voting — and a bloated number of nominees — would diversify the films nominated for Hollywood’s most prestigious award and add big-ticket blockbusters like “The Dark Knight” into the mix. Of course, hilarity ensued when the first Best Picture of the new era was “The Hurt Locker,” one of the lowest-grossing winners of all time. And, um, that plan half worked?
Two years later, “Argo” became only the second film since 1932 to win Best Picture without so much as earning a Best Director nomination, an embarrassment for the Academy on at least two different levels. 2012 was also the year when the Best Director trophy was somewhat rebranded as an award for technical achievement, with recognition for Ang Lee’s virtuosic work on “Life of Pi” anticipating the Oscars that Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, and Damien Chazelle would respectively win for “Gravity,” “The Revenant,” and “La La Land.”
Further adding to the confusion was the fact that Bennet Miller pulled a rare “Reverse Argo” in 2014, the “Foxcatcher” director earning a nomination for a film that wasn’t able to break into the Best Picture race. That discrepancy was owed to the fact that the nominees for each sub-category are determined by individual branches of the Academy, but it nevertheless provoked deeper questions about the director’s ultimate contribution to a film: Can a bad movie be well-directed? Can a good movie be poorly directed? More to the point, can a supposed masterpiece — a cinematic experience deemed worthy of the year’s greatest honor — really be independent of the person most centrally responsible for its realization?
These are interesting things to think about, but it goes without saying that the Dolby Theatre is the last place you should expect to find any conclusive evidence one way or the other. Applying superlatives to art is an inherently absurd idea, and you can only go so far down this particular rabbit hole before it starts to feel like you’re trying to use a ruler to draw a perfect circle. The Oscars are all about spreading the love, so the idea of folding Best Director into Best Picture (and forcing the producers to share the big prize) probably wouldn’t be super on brand for them.
At the end of the day, all that matters is this: Greta Gerwig was fucking robbed, and it better not happen again.