The Directors Guild Gets the Girl

10 Jan

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the only film among the current crop of DGA nominees that features a woman as one of its protagonists, but look closely at this image, which is currently featured on the Internet Movie Database: the male character played by Daniel Craig is featured more prominently than is the female played by Rooney Mara. Why?

Okay, boys, girls, and everything in between, the Directors Guild of America has spoken.  Here are the current DGA nominees for feature films:

  1. Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris)
  2. David Fincher (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
  3. Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)
  4. Alexander Payne (The Descendants)
  5. Martin Scorsese (Hugo)

Let’s unpack this: if there is a surprise inclusion, it has to be David Fincher.  This is actually Fincher’s third time in the race (for feature films). Just last year, he was in the running for The Social Network; three years ago, he received his first nod–for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. (He also has a pair of nominations for his work in commercials.)  I frankly believe Fincher was robbed when he was glossed over for awards recognition for Zodiac, but I digress. Nonetheless,  his propensity for dark material (Zodiac, Seven,  and Fight Club)  made him an ideal choice to make an American film based on Stieg Larsson’s international best seller about a disgraced journalist who teams with the titular character to solve a 40 year old mystery at the behest of a old moneyed Swedish industrialist.  To clarify, the late author’s trilogy had already been made into a series of Swedish films and/or mini-series that had even been nominated by the Academy. To further clarify; Fincher’s film, though designed for American audiences, is still set in Sweden with a mix of American, English, and Swedish actors.  Though highly anticipated for the better part of a year, Fincher’s film has not proven to be a box office blockbuster, and the critics–despite some high profile raves–have been all over the map: some praise the movie for actually being closer to the book than the Swedish films while others complain about changes in the last act and, perhaps, a softening of some of the material, especially the presentation of the female protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, a computer hacker with a brutal background who doesn’t have much use for people. My own take is that the material is dark, but I’ve seen darker, and as a whodunit, it’s a bit clunky though packed with surprises.

On the other hand, since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was just nominated for a Producers Guild Award last week, maybe Fincher’s nod here isn’t such a surprise.

There are two other relative surprises: Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese. Both men have several DGA nominations, and have won at least once each; both also have DGA lifetime achievement awards. This is Allen’s fifth DGA nomination The others are for Annie Hall (1977-w), Manhattan (1979), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). This is Martin Scorsese’s 8th nomination. He won for  2006’s The Departed. He was also nominated for Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), The Age of Innocence (1993), Gangs of New York (2002), and The Aviator (2004). He boasts another win, as well, for his work on the pilot episode of  HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Allen’s nomination is a bit of a surprise because even though his film has always seemed like it could very well figure into the Best Picture race, depending on how many nominee ultimately figure in the race,  many prognosticators believed that Allen would have to be satisfied with a nomination for his screenwriting rather than his directing. This nomination, on top of recent nods from the PGA and the WGA,  seems to show that both Allen and his film are definite contenders. Scorsese is a bit of a surprise in that Hugo is arguably the closest thing to an animated film to ever compete for the DGA prize; on the other hand, by all accounts, the movie was shot like a traditional feature film–in 3D–with “live” actors on sets designed by Oscar winner Dante Ferretti (The Aviator, and Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street), so maybe it’s not an animated film. I guess I need to go and see it for myself, and I will–right after I see War Horse.

Speaking of War Horse, Steven Spielberg didn’t make the DGA final cut, nor did Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life) or Tate Taylor (The Help). I’m not willing to count Spielberg or Malick out of the race–for the Oscar–just yet. Even so, Spielberg already has three competitive DGA awards (The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan), plua a Lifetime Achievement thing, so he can’t be smarting too badly over this little snub.  My guess is that Taylor, already a Writers Guild nominee for adapting Kathryn Stockett’s novel for the screen, might have to “settle” for “only” a screenplay nomination come Oscar time.

Here’s why the guilds (including the SAG, the DGA, the WGA, and the ASC) are important. Unlike, say, all the critics’  groups, guild members are basically working members of a given profession: actors, directors, writers, cinematographers, etc. Likewise, the Academy is made up of film professionals (okay, the organization includes many retirees, but I digress). Here’s what you have to keep in mind. The first round of Academy voting goes something like this: actors nominate actors, directors nominate directors, etc. Everyone gets to vote for Best Picture; I believe there is some kind of committee that handles Best Foreign Film; therefore,  some of the same people who vote for the guild awards will also be on board to nominate films in specific categories. Of course, Academy membership is much more exclusive than guild membership. For example, the DGA consists of members who work in feature films, television, and apparently commercials. Membership in the directors branch of the Academy is pretty much limited to directors who work primarily in film; nonetheless, there is every reason to expect some overlapping of nominees, but there is almost always some variation between any given guild and the Academy’s picks. For example, last year Christopher Nolan was nominated by the DGA for Inception, but he was overlooked by the Academy (though his film was not). In his place, the Academy opted for Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit redo; otherwise, the two groups were in-sync: Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech-w), Daren Aronofsky (Black Swan), David O. Russell (The Fighter), and the aforementioned David Fincher.

The DGA is a great big deal within the industry because there have only been six times, since the late 1940s, in which the winner of this particular guild prize did not also go on to win the Oscar; likewise, the Academy typically awards Best Picture and Best Director to the same film. The last DGA winner to not win with the Academy was Chicago‘s Rob Marshall (during the 2002/03 awards season); he lost the Oscar to Roman Polanski (The Pianist) though Chicago still won the Oscar for Best Picture. Of course, during the 1985/86 race, no less than Mr. Spielberg won the DGA for The Color Purple even though he was overlooked by the Academy, which instead lavished its prizes on Sydney Pollack and his film Out of Africa.  More recently, Ang Lee won the Academy Award and the DGA for Brokeback Mountain (2005), but Lee’s movie lost the top Oscar to Crash. Thank god.

Of the current bunch, I’d say Fincher is the dark horse.  Other than that, it’s a hard one to call. I think it would be fun if the Academy nominated Allen, Scorsese, and Spielberg just because the three of them are arguably the three most celebrated American directors of the last 30-40 years, and it would make a great showdown if they were all nominated at the same time.  I can see the cinephiles drooling now. Stay tuned.

Thanks for your consideration…

The Directors Guild of America:


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