Could 'Precious' director break Oscar barrier?

Commentary: Lee Daniels' main competition is Clint Eastwood

The Oscars aren't about celebrating diversity. That job falls to more special-interest kudos-fests including the NAACP Image Awards, the Imagen Awards, the GLAAD Media Awards and the Multicultural Motion Picture Assn.

True, when the Oscars have singled out minorities, it's made for some of the show's most heartfelt moments: Halle Berry's emotional acceptance in 2002 when she became the first black woman to be named best actress, for "Monster's Ball," or Denzel Washington's second Oscar win, for "Training Day" in 2002, when he saluted that year's honorary Oscar winner Sidney Poitier.

But when it comes to the status of women and minorities in Hollywood, Oscars only can reflect the reality on the ground: While commentators regularly pore over the Academy's annual list of nominees in search of people of color, it's really the film industry's fault when they fail to materialize. For, particularly behind the camera, the industry has been slow to diversify, and it's that reality that is reflected in the Academy's nominations.

This year, though, the DGA already has broken ground by nominating Lee Daniels and Kathryn Bigelow for its feature directing award. Daniels ("Precious") is the first African-American to be nominated in that category, and Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker") is only the seventh woman.

However, that doesn't necessarily mean the Academy will follow suit.

Although the DGA has a good track record for predicting the eventual Oscar best director, the Academy's directors' branch doesn't always follow the DGA's lead when it comes to choosing five nominees. One major difference between the groups: The 14,000-member DGA includes not only film and TV directors but also unit production managers and assistant directors. It tends to be more populist than the more-exclusive directors branch, which has just 366 members.

As a result, some DGA noms aren't echoed by the Academy. Last year, for example, the DGA nominated Christopher Nolan for "The Dark Knight," but the Academy balked. Other recent examples of DGA nominees failing to go on to score Academy noms include Sean Penn ("Into the Wild"), Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris ("Little Miss Sunshine") and Bill Condon ("Dreamgirls").

One rule of thumb subscribed to by longtime Academy watchers is that the directors branch is an exclusive and self-protective club slow to welcome new members. It's as if this group of top directors subconsciously asks itself, "Am I ready to see Nominee X win the big award?" before they bestow a nomination.

That certainly is one of the theories why the Academy never nominated Barbra Streisand for directing either for "Yentl" or "The Prince of Tides" -- the DGA gave her a nom for "Prince" -- even though it has nominated plenty of other A-list actors-turned-director including Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Mel Gibson and Kevin Costner.

Bigelow appears well-positioned to earn an Oscar nom, even though only three of the six women nominated by the DGA have been similarly recognized by the Academy. With "Locker," she's turned out a man's film that has received much critical attention, and her achievement is impossible to ignore.

Daniels' prospects are more problematic.

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The directors branch has nominated only one black director to date: John Singleton, tapped for his debut feature, 1991's "Boyz N the Hood." Somehow, it never found room to include Spike Lee, the most prominent black director of recent years. (The often-outspoken Lee earned an Oscar screenplay nomination for 1989's "Do the Right Thing," and his "Malcolm X" earned Denzel Washington a best actor nomination in 1993, but Lee himself never has been ushered into the club.)

Before Daniels can earn a slot of his own, he might have to overcome competition from the formidable Clint Eastwood, an Academy favorite, for directing the racial drama "Invictus."

The power of Eastwood's star appeal was in evidence last month when the Golden Globes nominations were announced. "Invictus" wasn't nominated for best drama; instead, the five movies -- including "Precious" -- directed by the eventual DGA nominees made the cut. But when the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. turned to the best director category, it dropped Daniels in favor of Eastwood.

Something similar could happen at the Academy. Eastwood, after all, is justifiably viewed as a master, while Daniels, making a bid with only his second film as director, is the least-seasoned among the DGA's nominees, which also include James Cameron, Quentin Tarantino and Jason Reitman.

On the other hand, "Invictus," which has grossed only $33.7 million domestically, appears to have lost momentum since its Dec. 11 release. "Precious," which has picked up $44.4 million since its November bow, seems to be hanging in. This week, for example, its screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher earned a nomination from the WGA, which didn't similarly reward "Invictus," suggesting that "Precious" is on a roll.

That could benefit Daniels when Oscar nominations are announced Feb. 2. If both he and Bigelow find themselves among the five directors nominated, there will be no denying that the club, at least this year, has opened its doors.
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