DGA Awards: How 'Gravity' Director Alfonso Cuaron's Win Impacts the Race (Analysis)

Alfonso Cuaron DGA - H 2014
Scott Feinberg

For the last 65 years of the 85 in which the Academy Awards have been presented, the Directors Guild of America (DGA) -- a union of 15,000 film and television directors from all over the world -- has presented awards, too. Over the course of that time, the winner of the guild's top prize, the DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures, has gone on to win the best director Oscar on all but seven occasions and his or her film has gone on to win the best picture Oscar on all but 13 occasions. For these reasons, the team behind Gravity and its director Alfonso Cuaron, who took home that prize on Saturday night at the 66th DGA Awards at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza in Los Angeles, are now rejoicing mightily.

Just one weekend after three different best picture Oscar nominees took home major guild prizes -- American Hustle won the top prize at the SAG Awards while 12 Years a Slave and Gravity tied for the top prize at the PGA Awards -- Cuaron won the DGA's top prize over three fellow best director Oscar nominees (Slave's Steve McQueen, Hustle's David O. Russell and The Wolf of Wall Street's Martin Scorsese) and one filmmaker who was embraced by the DGA but replaced by the Academy (Captain Phillips' Paul Greengrass, whose Oscar slot was claimed by Nebraska's Alexander Payne -- ironically, Greengrass scored a best director Oscar nom seven years ago for United 93 after not being nominated for the DGA Award).

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Cuaron's win was hardly a shocking result -- many pundits, including me, predicted it. He had, after all, already won the Critics' Choice and Golden Globe awards for best director for his oversight of a massive undertaking of an unprecedented nature. But what remains to be seen is whether the Academy, even if it is inclined to honor Cuaron, like the other groups, will also honor his film. Critics' Choice and Golden Globe voters honored him but not his sci-fi film, opting instead to present their highest honors to 12 Years a Slave, a film that is grounded in reality (it is an adaptation of a mid-19th century American slave's memoir) and about a subject of real-world significance (American slavery and race relations).

The general assumption is that this year's vote for the DGA Award was a close competition between Cuaron, a Mexican filmmaker who became its first Hispanic recipient, and McQueen, a British filmmaker who would have become its first black recipient. Neither had ever previously been nominated for the prize. (This was Scorsese's ninth nom in this category -- he won seven years ago for The Departed -- while this was Russell's second nom and Greengrass' first.) Cuaron and McQueen faced immensely different challenges: The former had to make a film for which the necessary technology had not yet even been invented and spent years working with his close collaborator and countryman, the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and the visual effects supervisor Tim Webber, to develop it. The latter, conversely, shot his film in just 35 days, in the middle of nowhere, with only one camera.

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It appears that size matters to the DGA.

The other nominees certainly had arguments in their favor, as well -- and Russell and Scorsese will continue to put forward theirs over the remaining time of the Oscar race. (The final round of Oscar voting will take place from Feb. 14-25 and the Oscars ceremony itself will take place on March 2.) Russell has built a strong case for himself as the top actors' director working today, having guided the stars of Hustle to Oscar noms in each of the four acting categories -- the second year in a row in which a Russell film has achieved that feat but only the 15th time it has been achieved in history. Scorsese, meanwhile, at the age of 71, has made his most vibrant and hotly-debated film in years.

Each of the nominees for the top award were, as always, toasted by a friend and/or colleague who then presented them with a DGA "medallion," after which they made brief remarks. Russell was feted by Hustle's best supporting actor Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper, who noted how much the director values his interactions with actors (who form the largest branch of the Academy); Scorsese by his fellow director and Wolf's supporting actor Rob Reiner, who joked about his own role in the film ("I don't know what is more unbelievable: that Leonardo DiCaprio is a Jew or that I am his father"); Greengrass by Captain Phillips' lead actor Tom Hanks, who complimented the director's instinct to trust Somalis who had never previously acted with major parts in the film (one, Barkhad Abdi, is now an Oscar nominee); McQueen by 12 Years' supporting actress Sarah Paulson, who hailed his supportive instincts (he reassured her "You cannot fail" when she doubted herself on set); and Cuaron by Gravity's lead actress Oscar nominee Sandra Bullock, who teased him about his poor English ("I wish I had understood what those words were, those long and inspirational anecdotes, praise and compliments -- but I had no idea what the man was saying").

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Then, Ben Affleck took the stage and presented the award to Cuaron, who accepted it graciously and nervously, with his voice shaking. Seeing the future Batman on stage might have elicited a wide variety of thoughts in the minds of the honoree and his tablemates from Warner Bros., including the studio's CEO Kevin Tsujihara and worldwide marketing president Sue Kroll. Last year, it was Affleck who won the DGA Award (for his direction of WB's Argo)... but he did not go on to win the best director Oscar (he wasn't even nominated)... however the film he directed did go on to win the best picture Oscar (cause for optimism)... which serves as a reminder that best picture-best director Oscar splits can and do happen -- 23 times over the last 85 years, in fact (cause for concern).

But, as I headed out of the DGA Awards nearly five hours after dinner was served, Cuaron's supporters were ecstatic and not even beginning to think beyond the moment itself. Lubezki, whom Cuaron referred to from the podium as "my co-filmmaker and oldest collaborator and friend," told me, "I'm so, so happy." And Bullock, to whom Cuaron said, "You are Gravity," told me, "I'm absolutely overjoyed and so happy for the person who deserved it. You have no idea."

Hold on to your hats, folks -- the race keeps twisting and turning, and we still have five more weeks until it all comes to a head at the Dolby!

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg