And the winner is... who?

Leslie Felperin warns the Oscar nominees not to expect logic on the night
Click to follow

Pop quiz: what do the directors Stanley Donen, Sergei Eisenstein, Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, FW Murnau, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean Renoir and Orson Welles all have in common? Apart from the obvious fact that they're all masters of the craft of film-making, all nine directed films that feature in the top 10 list of best movies ever made, as voted on by international critics every 10 years, in film magazine Sight and Sound's prestigious 2002 poll.

But here's one more interesting fact, a distinction all nine share with such luminaries as Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, Charlie Chaplin, Jean-Luc Godard and Martin Scorsese: not a man jack of them ever won the Academy Award for Best Director, although some won lifetime achievement awards or directed films that won Best Picture (Hitchcock, for instance, directed Rebecca, 1940, which won Best Picture).

Admittedly, one might point out that some of the names cited above are the very high priests of arthouse cinema. It's no great surprise that in 1965, when Godard released two of the best-ever flicks - gangster-movie deconstruction Pierrot le fou and the postmodern sci-fi film Alphaville - the Academy chose to honour Robert Wise for that crowd-pleaser The Sound of Music.

On the other hand, the fact that the unclassifiable Alfred Hitchcock never won Best Director only goes to show how middlebrow the Academy's taste has been over the years. Hitch's scary shockers, now considered densely layered masterpieces, were for years considered just too entertaining, too popular, for a voting body that prefers worthy liberal humanist, issue-heavy fare such as Elia Kazan's Gentleman's Agreement (Best Picture winner in 1947), about anti-Semitism, or Delbert Mann's Marty (winner in 1955) which illustrates that working-class people have feelings too. A recent poll by Turner Classic Movies appointed Hitchcock the "Most deserving director to have never won an Oscar", which might have been the sort of backhanded compliment that would have amused Hitch.

It's often in the Best Director category where the Academy makes the most embarrassing decisions in retrospect. Look at some of the names who have won that prize over the years (in some cases when competing against the powerhouses above) and you start to wonder if they really do get too much sun in Hollywood. Starting in 1927/28, Lewis Milestone (a good director, admittedly) beat Charlie Chaplin (competing with The Circus) for Two Arabian Knights, not a movie that history remembers fondly, if at all. The Academy's track record gets more ignominious in later years. In 1968, Carol Reed triumphed for Oliver! over Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 1980 Robert Redford bests Scorsese in the Ordinary People vs Raging Bull punchout, while Redford's sopfest takes home Best Picture too.

Long overlooked, Akira Kurosawa goes home with nothing for himself for Ran in 1986 (though the movie won Best Costume Design), while Sydney Pollack takes the prize for Out of Africa. Kevin Costner is voted Best Director in 1990 for Dances With Wolves over always-a-bridesmaid Scorsese for GoodFellas. It's widely expected that poor Marty will finally get his dues this year for directing The Aviator, a good flick and a more Oscar-friendly film than 2002's Gangs of New York, but still not a patch on his best.

By the new century, the Academy's ability to get it wrong with Best Director is almost a standing joke among cinephiles. There was a priceless cutaway during 2001's ceremony, while Ron Howard was making his way to the stage to collect the director's prize for A Beautiful Mind, when the camera caught David Lynch (up for Mulholland Dr.) and Robert Altman (Gosford Park), neither of them ever winners, standing next to each other with wry smiles on their faces as they applauded Howard's victory like good sports.

At www.filmsite.org, the site's editors have compiled several handy lists that reflect the full absurdity of the Oscars' voting and nomination history. Among the Academy Award-nominated that didn't win a thing in their respective years, there's an impressive roll call of titles that now feature frequently in polls of best 100 films. Blade Runner, Dr Strangelove, It's a Wonderful Life, The Lady Eve, The Magnificent Ambersons, Meet Me in St. Louis, Rebel Without a Cause, Red River, Singin' in the Rain, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Wild Bunch all got nothing.

Now look at just some of the films that were never even nominated: Bringing Up Baby, Don't Look Now, Modern Times, Once Upon a Time in America, Touch of Evil... and that's just the stuff in English. Nothing in German, Japanese, or, heaven forbid, Russian has ever been considered by the Academy for Best Picture.

As far as I can tell, the first film in a foreign language to get nominated was Costa-Gavras' francophone Z (1969), followed by precisely five more foreign-language nominees for Best Picture: two Swedish movies, Jan Troell's The Emigrants (1971) and Bergman's Cries and Whispers (1973); Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, which not only was in Chinese but also won Best Picture in 1987; and Michael Radford's Italian-language Il Postino (1994), which was hustled to nomination by Miramax's marketing muscle, as was the Holocaust movie Life Is Beautiful (1998).

Judging a good performance is a much more subjective affair than judging a good film. Sometimes an actor is simply perfect in a part because they were perfectly cast, while sometimes a director gets a top-quality turn from a less-than-promising talent (see, for example, how Lars von Trier's allegedly fierce manipulation of Björk for Dancer in the Dark was so effective she won the top acting prize at Cannes in 2000).

Traditionally, the Academy likes to award actors who make the joins show by pulling off some technical difficulty (Robert De Niro gaining weight and learning to punch for Raging Bull is a typical example, as is Daniel Day-Lewis playing a handicapped character for My Left Foot) or by playing someone saintly (Tom Hanks in Philadelphia or Forrest Gump, for instance).

Still, it slightly boggles the mind that some of the most memorable performances of the silver screen were never even nominated. The Academy overlooked Judy Garland for The Wizard of Oz, John Wayne in The Searchers, Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, Bette Davis in Dark Victory, and, disgracefully, Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, his career-making performance. Last year, the Academy finally gave O'Toole an honorary Oscar, although the actor was at first reluctant to accept it, saying that he hoped he was "still in the game and might win the lovely bugger outright" some day.

Never mind, Peter, when it comes to not winning an Oscar, you're in the most illustrious company.

VENICE WINNER 'THE RETURN' TAKES ANOTHER ACCOLADE

The winner of the BBC4 World Cinema award, in association with The Independent, is Andrei Zvyagintsev's The Return. The announcement was made by Jonathan Ross live on BBC4 last night in a ceremony from the Electric Cinema in Portobello Road in London. The victor was decided after a two-hour deliberation between myself, the actor Gillian Anderson and the Touching the Void director Kevin Macdonald.

The Russian film seemed to come out of nowhere when it won the Golden Lion in Venice. Its 39-year-old director of commercials had grown up in Siberia and was barely known in Moscow. It's a simple tale; two teenage boys - played by Vladimir Garin and Ivan Dobronravov - are startled when their mother announces one day that their father has returned home. They don't even know what he looks like, and mistrust his motives when he brusquely offers a fishing trip. The father, played with dark, sinister grace by the stage actor Konstantin Lavronenko, seems to have things on his mind other than bonding with his sons. The whole trip is a ruse to dig up a buried box in a desolate place, possibly a former military camp.

Zvyagintsev makes great and lingering use of the flat pine-forested landscapes near St Petersburg and the beautiful Lagoda lake that features so prominently in the latter part of the movie. It was in a nearby lake that the older of the two boy actors drowned weeks before the film's triumph in Venice, in circumstances horribly similar to the film itself. This tragedy has, if anything, added to the liminal quality of the film, which seems to embrace religious overtones from the outset.

Will the success of The Return tempt the director to work abroad? Apparently not; he's now a star in his own country, complimented even by Vladimir Putin, keen to talk up the notion of a renaissance in the once-mighty Russian film industry. "For me, the culture and language and codes of the Russian film industry are clear," Zvyagintsev says. "I understand how things work there."

Comments