Back to IndieWire

The 21 Most Overlooked Directors in Oscar History, From Ingmar Bergman to Alexander Payne

Prior to next month's Academy Awards, IndieWire looks back at directors who were nominated at least three times, but never gave an acceptance speech.

Alfred Hitchcock Stanley Kubrick Ridley Scott Robert Altman

Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, and Robert Altman

Sten-M. Rosenlund/REX/Shutterstock, SNAP/REX/Shutterstock, Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock, Alex J. Berliner/BEI/REX/Shutterstock

It’s not easy to land a Best Director Oscar nomination — even for a white man. Of the hundreds of filmmakers recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in nine decades, just 10 have been African American or women — which is why 2018 nominees Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig are so rare. Not one black Best Director has won since John Singleton became the first nominee with “Boyz in the Hood” in 1991. Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to ever take home a gold statue, for 2009’s “The Hurt Locker.” The only Asian director asked to accept top honors is Ang Lee, who prevailed for both “Brokeback Mountain” and “Life of Pi.”

Many great filmmakers have been nominated for their work outside of directing, including Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Sam Peckinpah, and Rob Reiner, but have never been invited to the Best Director party at all. Still more picked up Best Director nods and never walked away with a statue. Here’s IndieWire’s list of the most-lauded Best Director nominees who never won. Why were these men repeatedly nominated but routinely cast aside, notching losses in three or more separate years? Our gleanings yielded some trivia nuggets. For example, both Norman Jewison and Arthur Penn were bested by Mike Nichols in 1968, while Alexander Payne has opposed Martin Scorsese all three times he’s been nominated.

Check out our assessment of these 21 Oscar-denied filmmakers, from the great to the (almost) forgotten.

Three-Time Nominees

Ingmar Bergman 

- INGMAR BERGMANVARIOUS

Ingmar Bergman

REX/Shutterstock

Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman earned nine Oscar nominations throughout his one-of-a-kind career, including two for directing. He didn’t take home a statuette for either “Face to Face” or “Fanny and Alexander” — John G. Avildsen and James L. Brooks were honored instead — but his reputation hasn’t exactly suffered as a result. One of the most influential filmmakers of all time, Bergman’s presence can be felt in the art house to this day. He made more all-timers than most other directors make movies (if you haven’t seen “Persona” or “The Seventh Seal,” why haven’t you seen “Persona” or “The Seventh Seal”?), prompting the Academy to give him the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award — an honorary Oscar that, like most such prizes, was really a consolation prize to a master who deserved far more. —Michael Nordine

Richard Brooks

Robert Blake, Richard Brooks, Scott Wilson At right, director Richard Brooks, makes a point while talking to movie actors Scott Wilson, left, and Robert Blake, center, during filming of the adaptation of the book, "In Cold Blood", Kansas City, Kan. Wilson portrays the character, Eugene Hickock and Blake plays the part of Perry Smith, the two who murdered the Clutter family in western Kansas. In real life, Smith and Hickock were executed for the killings after their trial at Garden City, KanRobert Blake 1967, Kansas City, USA

Richard Brooks directs Scott Wilson and Robert Blake in the 1967 film “In Cold Blood”

P. Straeter/AP/REX/Shutterstock

One of the most celebrated auteurs of the ’50s and ’60s, Brooks’ first major triumph was the 1955 inner-city school drama “Blackboard Jungle,” a bold rock-and-roll film that was a huge showcase for a little-known Sidney Poitier. It earned Brooks his first overall Oscar nomination, for Best Writing of an Adapted Screenplay. His first directing nod would come with 1958’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” which also earned him recognition for Adapted Screenplay. The Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman drama was a sensation, but Brooks was trumped at the Oscars by Vincente Minnelli’s work directing the musical “Gigi.” Brooks finally won an Oscar, this time for Best Writing of an Adapted Screenplay, for the 1960 Burt Lancaster drama “Elmer Gantry,” but missed the directing nod for that outing. Brooks received two additional pairs of nominations — for both directing and adapted screenplay for 1966’s “The Professionals” and 1967’s “In Cold Blood.” But the directing statues went to Fred Zinnemann (“A Man for All Seasons”) and Mike Nichols (“The Graduate”). —William Earl

James Ivory

James Ivory'Call Me By Your Name' film screening, Arrivals, New York, USA - 16 Nov 2017

James Ivory at a “Call Me By Your Name” screening in 2017

Stephen Lovekin/REX/Shutterstock

When it comes to Ivory, two important truths must be noted: There’s no Ivory without Merchant (producer Ismail Merchant was Ivory’s long-time partner, both in their personal and professional lives), and Merchant Ivory Productions’ impact on both the international film scene and the movie public’s affection for period films is hard to overstate. It’s also difficult to quantify in terms of the Academy Awards, for which Ivory was nominated as director for three (two were back to back). Ivory’s artistry is paramount, along with his deep affection and understanding for his characters. Other movies just don’t look like Merchant Ivory movies, they don’t move like them or feel like them, and that’s because of the tremendous care Ivory spent on them. He’s one of the true giants of modern cinema — and, at age 89, he’s still doing it, earning a 2018 Oscar nomination for writing “Call Me by Your Name.” While an Oscar would sure put a nice cherry on top of his decade-spanning career, one gets the sense it’s hardly required at this point. He’s made his mark. —Kate Erbland

Norman Jewison

Norman Jewison'Yesterday's Loner Steve McQueen' Film Series Screening of The Thomas Crown Affair, New York, America - 21 May 2009 The Film Society of Lincoln Center's 'Yesterday's Loner Steve Mcqueen' film series screening of Norman Jewison's The Thomas Crown Affair, Walter Reade Theater.

Norman Jewison in 2009

Contino/BEI/REX/Shutterstock

Versatile and prolific, Canadian Norman Jewison was thrice nominated for Best Director in three different decades: for still-timely racial drama “In the Heat of the Night,” heartfelt musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” and romantic comedy “Moonstruck.” (That’s his gift— he can do anything.) His best shot at winning was likely “In the Heat of the Night,” which took home Best Picture in 1968 — but he lost to a young guy named Mike Nichols for a little film called “The Graduate.” In 1998, Jewison accepted the Irving G. Thalberg Award recognizing “creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production.” While Jewison’s films err on the side of mainstream entertainment over the avant-garde, his legacy endures. “Moonstruck” is still widely quoted, and “Fiddler on the Roof” is one of the last great Broadway movie adaptations. —Jude Dry

Stanley Kramer

STANLEY KRAMERVARIOUS

Stanley Kramer in 1968

REX/Shutterstock

Kramer, a New Yorker whose mother worked for Paramount Pictures, landed in Hollywood at 19 and toiled as a $22/week stagehand at 20th Century Fox. A string of research, writing, and editing gigs followed at MGM. Then he ventured out as an independent producer of films like war movie “Home of the Brave” and “The Men,” Marlon Brando’s feature debut. A nine-time Oscar nominee, Kramer earned six of those nods as a producer, beginning with “High Noon,” although doubts persist about how involved he was in that project. In his early 40s, he started helming his own films, carving out a reputation for tales with heavy-handed, liberal messages that The Academy appreciated (“The Defiant Ones,” “Judgment at Nuremberg,” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” all resulted in directing nominations). During the McCarthy era, Kramer’s frequent collaborator, Carl Foreman, was blacklisted. Kramer initially derided Foreman’s House Un-American Activities Committee testimony as unhelpful, but then irked many by commissioning another blacklisted writer, Nedrick Young, for a pair of projects. In total, Kramer was behind the camera for 23 Oscar-nominated performances, picking up The Academy’s Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1962. The year after his death, the PGA christened The Stanley Kramer Award, presented annually to a member whose films address social ills. Jordan Peele was the 2018 recipient for “Get Out,” and Norman Lear presented the honor. “Stanley Kramer was my hero,” Lear said. “I couldn’t have admired him more when Stanley Kramer was tackling subjects like Nazis and creationists and nuclear annihilation. Kramer was a nobleman, and a giant in the industry.” —Jenna Marotta 

Ernst Lubitsch

Ernst Lubitsch, German-American motion picture director, Los Angeles. Undated pictureERNST LUBITSCH, LOS ANGELES, USA

Ernst Lubitsch

AP/REX/Shutterstock

Unlike many of the directors on this list, German emigre Ernest Lubitsch was one of the great film artists who was recognized in his time. During the Depression at Paramount, Lubitsch wasn’t just a prominent director; he was a household name. His witty, sophisticated humor was set in Hollywood’s version of European aristocracy. For the first and second Academy Awards ceremonies (1929 and 1930), he received a Best Director nomination for films (“The Love Parade” and “The Patriot”) that were nominated for Best Picture. Although known for witty films that gleefully winked at the audience as they packed a social (and often political) bite, he did make more sincere dramatic comedies like “Shop Around The Corner” and “Heaven Can Wait” (nominated for Best Picture in 1943), but he never won an Academy Award before dying of heart attack in 1947 at age 55. —Chris O’Falt

David Lynch

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Studio Canal+/Les Alain Sarde/Universal/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5880281i) Naomi Watts, David Lynch Mulholland Dr. - 2001 Director: David Lynch Studio Canal+/Les Films Alain Sarde/Universal FRANCE/USA On/Off Set Mulholland Drive

David Lynch directs Naomi Watts in the 2001 film “Mulholland Drive”

Universal/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

The list of directors who haven’t won an Academy Award for directing is arguably more impressive than the list of actual winners. One case in point is David Lynch, who’s been nominated three times (“The Elephant Man,” “Blue Velvet,” and “Mulholland Drive”) but left the ceremony empty-handed each time — Robert Redford, Oliver Stone, and Ron Howard were honored instead. The fact that Lynch hasn’t made a movie since 2006’s “Inland Empire” and likely never will again all but ensures his fate as an Oscar also-ran, which reflects more poorly on the Academy than it does on him. A singular auteur who’s so out-there that it’s honestly a wonder he’s even been nominated, Lynch will have to make do with being considered one of the most unique cinematic voices ever to make movies. (And hey, there’s always Cannes, which awarded him both the Palme d’Or for “Wild at Heart” and Best Director laurels for “Mulholland Drive.”) —MN

Alexander Payne

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover UsageMandatory Credit: Photo by Merie W. Wallace/Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (9264044a) Matt Damon, Alexander Payne "Downsizing" Film - 2017

Alexander Payne directs Matt Damon in the 2017 film “Downsizing”

Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Alexander Payne did nab a pair of Oscars for adapted screenplays “Sideways” and “The Descendants”— for which he was also nominated for directing, along with “Nebraska” — but he remains unrequited as a director/producer. 2017’s “Downsizing” broke Payne’s four-feature streak of securing acting nominations for the actors playing his alienated male characters — Thomas Haden Church, Jack Nicholson, George Clooney, and Bruce Dern. While accepting a directing prize from the Palm Springs International Film Festival in the early aughts, Payne expressed his frustration with the trajectory of mainstream cinema: “I thank you for this award, though I think there may be a problem with a world in which making small, human and humorous films is ‘an achievement.’ It should be the norm.” —JM 

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Film and tagged , , ,