For better or worse (which at this time of year, as the punditry reaches its hyperbolic event horizon, usually feels like worse) an Academy Award is the highest honor anyone in the film industry can receive. But of course, like any large organization—even one that wasn’t, as of 2012, reportedly 94% white, 77% male and 86% over the age of 50—the AMPAS gets things wrong (shocking, we know). Sometimes due to the politicking of insiders, sometimes because the wind shifts, and yes, sometimes because of plain old-fashioned bias, the membership votes to award the lesser film, or the lesser performance, or the lesser accomplishment, while the greater one stays seated after the envelope is opened—if they're there at all.
You’ve seen it happen time and time again: it’s bad enough for an actor, but while theirs is the most competitive and largest block, there are four acting categories each time, divided by gender, and an actor can technically appear in several films in a single year. Directors, on the other hand, often spend at least a couple of years attached to a single project (unless they’re Woody Allen), so their chance to hop on the Best Director carousel, which only seats five anyway, comes by much less often. Which makes miscarriages of justice in this arena both more inevitable and more galling.
In part this is down to the statistical likelihood that a Best Picture winner will also take Best Director (as indeed feels logical—always a bit strange that the director of the Best Picture doesn’t get to take the podium for that award unless he or she is also a producer) as has happened in 63 out of the 85 cases to date. And we all know how notoriously fickle the Best Picture slot can be (our evidently “controversial” ranking of the 85 Best Picture winners is here). Taking all of these factors into consideration, it’s not surprising that some of the biggest directors in film history have come away empty handed. So we wanted to show them a little love.
A word or two on who we’re covering: this is solely about the Best Directing Oscar so while some of the below may have been awarded in other areas like screenplay or even as a producer, or received Lifetime Achievement placebos, they’ve never been named Best Director. And we decided to confine ourselves to directors for whom winning in the future is either impossible, or, as in the case of Jean-Luc Godard, highly improbable (he'd likely not accept anyway!). So we won’t be featuring David Lynch (3 directing nominations, no wins), Christopher Nolan (0 directing nominations), David Fincher (2 nominations), Jane Campion (1 nom), Terry Gilliam (0 noms), Terrence Malick, (2 noms), Darren Aronofsky (1 nom), Spike Lee (0 noms), Paul Thomas Anderson (1 nom), David Cronenberg (0 noms) and so on, as least some of whom will surely pick up a Directing statue in future years. Our 20 picks below are all people for whom the book on that is firmly closed—as surprising, baffling or saddening as that might be.
Akira Kurosawa (1936-1993)
Directing Nominations: “Ran” (1985)
Other Oscar History: While this is a trickier area, as the Academy is not known for embracing foreign-language films or filmmakers in categories other than Best Foreign Language Film, (Michael Haneke’s Director nomination for “Amour” being a recent, rare exception), there is technically no reason why they are not just as eligible. And in some cases, the quality of the output is simply impossible to ignore, as in Akira Kurosawa’s case, with the Academy eventually nominating him as director for the “King Lear” riff “Ran,” and also giving him an Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1990, while back in 1951 “Rashomon” had been awarded another discretionary Oscar for Outstanding Foreign Film in the days before the modern Foreign Language Film Oscar had been established.
What Should They Have Won For: Oh, man. Everyone has their favorite, and “Seven Samurai” is probably his most famous and influential, but since we can’t please everyone we’re just going to please ourselves and go for outsider “Ikiru.” Notionally one of the least immediate of his films, it is the tiny, immaculate tale (based in a Tolstoy short story) of a minor bureaucrat’s attempts to build a playground. And that is it, but just writing that gave us chills and if we think about it too much we’ll cry. So yes, “Ikiru.”
Alfred Hitchock (1899-1980)
Directing Nominations: “Rebecca” (1940), “Lifeboat” (1944), “Spellbound” (1945), “Rear Window” (1954) and “Psycho” (1960)
Other Oscar History: Hitchcock is pretty much the corpulent, cigar-chomping poster boy for this list. It’s almost inconceivable that someone who bestrode Hollywood in such a colossal way for so long never won Best Director. Only one of his films won Best Picture: “Rebecca,” (1941) and he lost the Director gong that year to John Ford for “The Grapes of Wrath." The Academy itself seemed a bit “oh crap what’ve we done?” about it all, giving Hitch the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1968. It is an honorary Oscar (confusingly not shaped like an Oscar), but even that is awarded to “creative producers” rather than in recognition of directing achievement.
What Should They Have Won For: Sheesh, pick a card. Of his nominations, he should have won for either “Rear Window” or “Psycho,” both brilliant thrillers that in their own way were experimental. But in hindsight, the film he should have won for didn’t even get a nomination (it flopped on initial release): “Vertigo.” It’s a dizzying, daring, dark tour de force of personal passion and perversity wrapped up in incredible craft (not to mention it has the best legacy of any Hitchcock film, replacing "Citizen Kane" on the Sight & Sound greatest of all time list). And if that would have been too hard a sell, then come on, I mean, “North by Northwest” pretty much launched the action/adventure genre with seemingly effortless charm, and "Notorious" too, comes dangerously close to perfection.
Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999)
Directing Nominations: "Dr. Strangelove" (1964), "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968), "A Clockwork Orange" (1971) and "Barry Lyndon" (1975)
Other Oscar History: All of the above, bar "2001," received Best Picture nominations, and Kubrick was nominated for co-writing the screenplays for all four plus 1987's "Full Metal Jacket." Kubrick's sole Oscar win was for Best Visual Effects for "2001," though he wasn't present at the awards ceremony.
What Should They Have Won For? Tough one. Almost any of the above would have been good choices, along with "The Shining," though that, as a horror flick, was never likely to be in the Academy's wheelhouse. But if we had to pick just one, let's go for "2001," which in a career that made a lot of cinematic history, made the most. It's Kubrick's most experimental, most meticulous and most groundbreaking picture, and the sort of thing that a director deserves to be recognized for. It's the film that, even with several close rivals, will be the one that he's remembered for, and certainly feels like the one that should have won him the Oscar.
Robert Altman (1925-2006)
Directing Nominations: “MASH” (1970), “Nashville” (1975), “The Player” (1992), “Short Cuts” (1993) and “Gosford Park” (2001)
Other Oscar History: Surprisingly, no Altman film ever won Best Picture, despite his Academy-friendly ensemble casts. He did get the late-career fillip of an honorary Oscar in 2006, but died just months after receiving that award (when he had quipped that it was premature as he might have another “four decades” of moviemaking in him). Trivia factoid: “There Will Be Blood,” was dedicated to Altman by Paul Thomas Anderson.
What Should They Have Won For: Altman had a long and prolific career—in addition to the films you know, here are 10 you might not—but it feels like the nominations fell about right, even if they never yielded a win. So a case could be made for the wry cynicism of “MASH,” with its pioneering use of overlapping sound (a technique that remained a staple of Altman’s), while “Nashville” may still be the apotheosis of the sweeping-yet-intimate scale he was famous for. But we’re going to go with one of our favorite inside-baseball Hollywood movies ever, “The Player.” Perhaps too pointed and acerbic a satire on the industry to be fully embraced by it, it’s still a major achievement in self-awareness that it manages to be the very thing it sends up: a brilliantly exciting, entertaining, starry Hollywood movie.
His Majesty, John Cassavetes (1929-1989)
Directing Nominations: "A Woman Under The Influence" (1974)
Other Oscar History: Cassavetes was nominated not just as a director, but also as an actor (for "The Dirty Dozen" in 1967), and as a writer, for Original Screenplay in 1968 for "Faces." He never made it into the Best Picture field, though. Wife Gena Rowlands was also nominated for "A Woman Under The Influence," and again for "Gloria."
What Should They Have Won For? Cassavetes was such a pioneer on the indie scene that it's surprising that he ever came within a sniff of Oscar as a writer or director, but it says something of the experimental spirit of the Academy in the late '60s and early '70s that he did pick up a couple of nominations, although it probably helped that he was already a familiar name (and indeed, a nominee) as a character actor. The director's low-key, low-budget, hand-held work is far enough outside the mainstream that it would be lucky to get a Spirit Award nomination these days, so that he got an Academy nod alone feels like a victory. But it would have been great to see him pick up a statue, given how massively influential he is, and if we had to pick a favorite, it'd be "Opening Night," which went overlooked entirely by the Academy: the tale of an actress on the verge of a nervous breakdown is masterfully made and acted. But the film was attacked by critics at the time, and barely even got a release.