Awards Circuit Column: Names like Christopher Nolan will help keep viewers engaged in the awards race
Lights, camera, Oscars.
When you chat with someone about filmmakers and mention Steven Spielberg, even the most oblivious Hollywood consumer knows who you’re talking about. Yet the helmers of the year’s most critically acclaimed and top-grossing movies aren’t typically household names. Just ask your neighbor if they know who Michel Hazanavicius is. No, Spielberg doesn’t have a film in the awards race this year. However, with plenty of multi-hyphenate artists and cinema masters in the mix, more well-known directors are hunting for Oscar glory this season than in almost any in recent memory.
Actors-turned-directors who have been snubbed before will once again bring the A-list power. Those include Bradley Cooper, whose Leonard Bernstein biopic “Maestro” follows 2018’s “A Star Is Born,” and Ben Affleck, whose Nike sports drama “Air” comes after 2012’s “Argo” nabbed best picture but not a nomination for its director.
Greta Gerwig is behind the highest-grossing film of the year, “Barbie,” surpassing “The Dark Knight” (2008) as Warner Bros.’ most financially successful film. One studio executive and Academy voter tells Variety, “I don’t want it to be true, but she already won the Oscar.”
Well, it’s wildly premature to make such a call, but Gerwig is undoubtedly in the conversation.
Speaking of “The Dark Knight,” its director, Christopher Nolan, has enjoyed an unparalleled string of box office success with his superhero trilogy as well as “Inception” and “Dunkirk.” But he’s only scored a single directing Oscar nom, for “Dunkirk.” “Oppenheimer,” his look at the creation of the atomic bomb, is an early favorite by many pundits to nab him a second nomination.
With the added benefit of “Dune: Part Two” moving out of this calendar year, Nolan will be a social media favorite, as will his stars Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr. and Emily Blunt. The narrative that Nolan is overdue for a win will get eyes glued to the TV screens when the 96th awards ceremony airs in March.
With a body of work that includes “Taxi Driver” and “Goodfellas,” Martin Scorsese resonates with cinephiles the world over. For “Killers of the Flower Moon” — a devastating look at the way a few greedy men systematically murdered a community of Indigenous people in the 1930s for their oil rights — the filmmaker brings together frequent collaborators Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, along with Lily Gladstone in a star-making turn. At 80, Scorsese, who won an Oscar for “The Departed” (2006), would be the oldest directing nominee in Academy history, surpassing then-79-year-old John Huston for “Prizzi’s Honor” (1985).
Scorsese isn’t the only octogenarian in the race.
Michael Mann, 80, has built a résumé of stylized dramas like “Heat” and “The Insider.” He’s back with the period biopic “Ferrari,” starring Adam Driver and Penélope Cruz, which bowed at the Venice Film Festival. Mann has only a single Oscar nom to his name, so the “overdue” narrative will be front and center of his campaign, with distributor Neon making it one of its main pushes. Neon is also steering “Origin” from writer and director Ava DuVernay, who became the first and only Black woman to helm a best picture-nominated movie with “Selma” (2014). And with “Origin,” DuVernay became the first Black woman to compete at Venice. Adapting Isabel Wilkerson’s bestselling book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” with Oscar-nominated Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in a starring role, DuVernay could be an early-going favorite.
Oscar-nominated directors Yorgos Lanthimos (“Poor Things”), Alexander Payne (“The Holdovers”), Emerald Fennell (“Saltburn”) and David Fincher (“The Killer”) will also lend some hype to the race. All have their pockets of popularity in the film community. So odds are that you won’t need to Google the name when the best director is named on Oscar night.