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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

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Arthur Penn

Us Film Maker Arthur Penn Poses Before His Round Table Lecture to Analyse the Relationship Between 'The Quixote and the Cinema' at Dore at Madrid's Film Library on Tuesday 26 April 2005 Spain MadridSpain Us Cinema Penn - Apr 2005

Arthur Penn in 2005

Paco Campos/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

Arthur Penn may not be a household name among young cinephiles, but his iconic 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde” was a brash boundary-pusher that opened the New American Cinema of the 1970s to extreme sex, violence, and a European sensibility. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were dangerous and erotic in that film in ways American audiences had never seen, and the result was a scandalous box-office smash. Although the film was nominated for 10 Oscars, it only won statues for Cinematography and Supporting Actress, which was read by many as a message from the establishment that the film was just too outrageous. (The Best Director statue that year went to Mike Nichols for his seminal “The Graduate.”) Previously, Penn was nominated for Best Director for his 1962 Anne Sullivan biopic “The Miracle Worker,” but was bested by David Lean for his epic “Lawrence of Arabia.” Penn’s third and final Best Director nomination was for the 1969 political comedy “Alice’s Restaurant,” but he lost to John Schlesinger for his flashily X-rated “Cowboy.” —WE

David O. Russell

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Atlas Entertainment/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5885963ao) David O. Russell, Jennifer Lawrence, Jack Huston American Hustle - 2013 Director: David O. Russell Atlas Entertainment USA On/Off Set American Bluff

David O. Russell directs Jennifer Lawrence and Jack Huston in 2013’s “American Hustle”


While actors from George Clooney to Amy Adams have criticized Russell’s volatile temperament, several have moved from his set to The Academy’s class photo. Over eight features, Russell has inspired seven Oscar-caliber performances from Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale, who triumphed for “The Fighter,” while Lawrence won with “Silver Linings Playbook.” Russell’s award season biography includes being passed over thrice in four years for top directing honors; he’s also a two-time screenwriting nominee. Despite amassing 10 acknowledgements, Russell’s most-nominated work, “American Hustle,” went home without a statue in 2014. —JM 

Sir Ridley Scott

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover UsageMandatory Credit: Photo by Fabio Lovino/TriStar/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (9308101ad) Mark Wahlberg, Ridley Scott, Christopher Plummer "All The Money In The World" Film - 2017

Ridley Scott directs Mark Wahlberg and Christopher Plummer on the set of 2017’s “All The Money In The World”


Trained as a set designer and learning the tricks of his craft from his lucrative commercial career, Scott helmed his first feature on the eve of his 40th birthday. Scott has perhaps made his effortless technical acumen look too easy. He has masterminded complex action sequences against virtually every backdrop, from Medieval England (“Robin Hood”) to ’90s Somalia (“Black Hawk Down”) and 2035 Mars (“The Martian,” for which he also earned a Best Picture nod). His iconic cinematic imagery — generated from his own storyboard sketches — includes the Thunderbird cliff dive (“Thelma & Louise”), lung-puncturing parasite (“Alien”), and Russell Crowe’s “My name is Maximus” monologue from “Gladiator.” Weeks before the December 2017 release of his latest film, “All the Money in the World,” sexual assault claims against actor Kevin Spacey led to Scott’s most astonishing challenge: recasting the role, gambling approximately $10 million on reshoots. Clearly, the Academy actors were duly impressed, as Spacey’s replacement, Christopher Plummer, is now a Best Supporting Actor nominee. —JM 

William A. Wellman

WILLIAM A. WELLMAN Movie director William A. Wellman is photographed under the marquee of a theater in Los Angeles in May 1974 at the start of a film festival featuring 39 of his 75 films. Wellman's movies include "Wings," "Public Enemy," "Call of the Wild, and "A Star is BornWELLMAN FILM FESTIVAL, LOS ANGELES, USA

William A. Wellman in 1974


William A. Wellman will forever be immortalized in Academy Award history as directing the first Best-Picture winner, the 1927 silent film “Wings.” But the Best Director statue eluded him in 1938 with the seminal “A Star Is Born.” While Wellman did win an Oscar for Best Story, Best Director that year went to Leo McCarey for the screwball comedy “The Awful Truth.” His second nod came for 1949’s war drama “Battleground,” but he lost to Joseph L. Mankiewicz for his work on the starry romance “A Letter to Three Wives.” Wellman’s last opportunity to win the statue came with his nod for 1955’s John Wayne disaster film “The High and the Mighty,” but he lost the category to Elia Kazan’s work on the classic “On the Waterfront.” Although Wellman was never able to land the directing Oscar, he helmed more than 80 films during his long career, and was eventually honored by the DGA with a Lifetime Achievement Award. —WE

Sam Wood

Line-up Of Film Crew On Film Set In 1938 Includes Film Director Sam Wood (10). - For Full Caption See Version. Line-up Of Film Crew On Film Set In 1938 Includes Film Director Sam Wood (10). - For Full Caption See Version.

Sam Wood in 1938


A former assistant to Cecile B. DeMille, Sam Wood was a prolific journeyman at the start of his three-decade directorial career, helming eight pictures in 1920 alone.  He coaxed Oscar-winning performances from Katina Paxinou in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Robert Donat in “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” and Ginger Rogers in “Kitty Foyle,” and was nominated for the last two along with “King’s Row.” Wood helped to save what was then cinema’s most-expensive production to date, eight-time Oscar-winner “Gone with the Wind” in 1939, replacing future Best Director Victor Fleming for 24 days while he recovered from exhaustion. Political activist Wood founded the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals in 1944, and made all the beneficiaries of his will sign affidavits promising that they’d never had Communists sympathies. Wood died of a heart attack before the release of his final film, 1950’s “Ambush,” and received a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. —JM 

Four-Time Nominees

Federico Fellini

Italian film director Federico Fellini studies the framing of a close-up of Italian movie and stage star Anna Magnani in Rome, Italy on . He is seen on the set of the movie "Roma" which he is directingItaly Rome Federico Fellini and Anna Magnani, Rome, Italy

Federico Fellini frames a close-up of Anna Magnani on the set of 1972’s “Roma”


One of the most baffling Oscar exclusions from the pantheon of classic directors is Federico Fellini, for chrissakes, who along with his four Best Director nods scored eight nominations for screenwriting as well as an honorary Oscar. The maestro’s influence extends far beyond winning hardware at a glitzy Hollywood ceremony. One gets the sense that even the Academy knows it made a mistake in overlooking Fellini for his work on “Amarcord,” “La dolce vita,” and — one of the best films ever made — “8 1/2.” That’s why the Governors bestowed the Italian filmmaker with an Honorary Oscar back in 1993 — “in recognition of his cinematic accomplishments that have thrilled and entertained worldwide audiences.” He didn’t need it. He’s Fellini. —KE

Stanley Kubrick

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5880545k) Tom Cruise, Stanley Kubrick, Sydney Pollack Eyes Wide Shut - 1999 Director: Stanley Kubrick Warner Bros USA On/Off Set Drama

Stanley Kubrick directs Tom Cruise and Sydney Pollack in “Eyes Wide Shut,” which was released four months after Kubrick’s death in 1999.


It’s hard to figure out which is the worst of the many indignities the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences inflicted upon Stanley Kubrick. Is it the fact that only one of his films ever earned even a single Oscar (Best Special Effects for “2001: A Space Odyssey”)? Is it that only three of his films were ever nominated for Best Picture (“A Clockwork Orange,” “Dr. Strangelove,” and “Barry Lyndon”)? Or is it the fact that his towering final masterpiece, 1999’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” was deemed unworthy of even a single nod for the late auteur, Kubrick failing to earn a Best Director nomination in a category that was ultimately won by “American Beauty” director Sam Mendes? It’s probably that last one. The Academy has overlooked an embarrassing number of great filmmakers over the years, but the fact that Michael Hazanavicius already has more Oscars for Best Director than the great Stanley Kubrick ever will is pretty grim. On the other hand, it’s a helpful factoid to keep in mind when your favorite nominee loses this year and you need to keep things in perspective. —David Ehrlich

Sidney Lumet

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Will Hart/Linsefilm/Thinkfilm/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5881517g) Ethan Hawke, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sidney Lumet Before The Devil Knows You're Dead - 2007 Director: Sidney Lumet Linsefilm/Thinkfilm USA On/Off Set Drama 7h58 ce samedi-là

Sidney Lumet directs Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2007’s “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead”


How is it possible that the man responsible for “Network,” “Twelve Angry Men,” “The Verdict” and “Dog Day Afternoon” never won an Oscar for directing? He was nominated for those four, and 14 of his films received nominations of some kind, including “Serpico,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” and “The Wiz.” Lumet’s greatest skill may have been in choosing good material and even better actors. Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant and prescient “Network” script overshadowed Lumet’s contributions, to which Pauline Kael devoted only a handful of sentences in her seven-column review in The New Yorker“The film looks negligently made,” wrote Kael. “The lighting bleaches the actors’ faces…and the New York views…feel like blown-up photographs.” Still, “Network” earned three acting Oscars for its stars, a record tied only with “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Lumet was known as an actor’s director, a core tool of the trade which the Academy tends to overlook in favor of flashier skills. It corrected the error in 2004, when Lumet received an Honorary Academy Award. However, it chose to highlight his “brilliant services to screenwriters, performers and the art of the motion picture.” —JD

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