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There was little doubt that Dunkirk‘s Christopher Nolan and The Shape of Water‘s Guillermo del Toro would land nominations for the top honor at the 70th DGA Awards, which were announced Thursday — both are veteran, widely celebrated auteurs who made hugely ambitious, large-scale films in 2017 — and indeed they were nominated. But, heading into the announcement, there were big question marks about who would claim the other three slots.
Among the contenders were the legendary Steven Spielberg for the high-profile The Post, Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino for critics’ darling Call Me by Your Name and Sean Baker, who, with The Florida Project, won the best notices of his young career. In the end, though, those spots went to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri‘s Martin McDonagh, an Irishman, and two American filmmakers who do not demographically resemble very many previous nominees: Get Out‘s Jordan Peele, a person of color, and Lady Bird‘s Greta Gerwig, a woman. (Gerwig is only the eighth woman ever nominated by the guild, following Lina Wertmuller, Randa Haines, Barbra Streisand, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Valerie Faris and Kathryn Bigelow; Faris shared her nomination with her husband, Jonathan Dayton, and Bigelow has been nominated twice).
Get Out marked Peele’s feature directorial debut and Lady Bird was Gerwig’s first solo directorial feature effort.
What makes these selections hugely significant is the fact that no guild has a longer or stronger track record of anticipating the nominees for both the best picture and best director Oscars. But, at the same time, one must note that the DGA and the Academy’s directors branch almost never agree on all five of their slots — indeed, it has happened just five times in 69 years. Last year, for instance, the DGA nominated Lion‘s Garth Davis, but the Academy’s directors branch then replaced him with Hacksaw Ridge‘s Mel Gibson. And, the year before, the DGA nominated The Martian‘s Ridley Scott, but the Academy’s directors branch then replaced him with Room‘s Lenny Abrahamson.
This year, I can envision a scenario in which the Academy’s directing branch — which, like the rest of the organization, began its nominations voting on Jan. 5 and ends it on Friday — might bounce Gerwig or Peele, as each has Achilles’ heels.
For Gerwig, it must be noted that the Academy’s directors branch, even more so than the DGA, is dominated by men, some of whom may not be as open as others to the idea of a female director. Perhaps even more problematically, Gerwig has been best known as an actress, and while the Academy’s directors branch has nominated quite a few multihyphenates over the years — most recently Gibson — they also have, on occasion, demonstrated a seeming aversion to them, perhaps resentful of the apparent ease with which some land major projects. That is one theory for why Ben Affleck, whom many expected to win the best director Oscar for Argo, instead wasn’t even nominated for his directing.
As for Peele, he made his name in television. That isn’t as much of an issue for the DGA, the 17,000-plus members of which include many directors who make their living working in TV. But it could be a problem when it comes to an Oscar nom, since the Academy’s directors branch, which is currently comprised of 512 members, is dominated by film-specific helmers, and thus possibly not as open to rewarding a newcomer from the world of the small screen.
Who would be the likeliest replacement for one of the DGA nominees in this year’s Oscar nominations? Many believe it would be Spielberg or Guadagnino, but I actually think it would be Baker. The youthful 46-year-old, who was best known for making the acclaimed film Tangerine using iPhones before making The Florida Project, is a huge cinephile who knows and emulates the work of neorealist/kitchen-sink legends like Charles Burnett and Ken Loach. And while he’s not yet nearly as famous as Spielberg, or even Guadagnino, he does share something in common with almost every recent unknown, or little-known, filmmaker who landed a widely unexpected best director Oscar nom, such as Stephen Daldry for Billy Elliot (2000), Fernando Meirelles for City of God (2003), Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), the aforementioned Abrahamson for Room (2015) and Barry Jenkins for Moonlight (2016). He helped to guide a child — in his case, then-6-year-old Brooklynn Prince — to a magnificent performance. Rightly or wrongly, that seems to be something the Academy’s directors branch hugely respects, even more than the DGA. (Of the directors mentioned above, only Jenkins was nominated by the DGA en route to the Oscar nom.)
One last consideration: The DGA noms tend to reflect which way the wind was blowing a few weeks ago, as opposed to right now, since the guild’s voting — which takes place entirely online — began way back on Nov. 29. It only closed on Wednesday, but it is understood that many members vote right away, which means the nominations do not always reflect enthusiasm for films that only began accruing buzz over and after the December holidays.
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