14 Great Filmmakers Who Never Won “Best Director”


Well, we’ve all had a week to let the Oscar nominations sink in, and if there’s one thing almost everyone seems to agree on, it’s this: Christopher Nolan wuz robbed. As we noted when running down the snubs, it’s a bit surprising that Nolan’s dizzyingly complicated, masterfully-crafted work on Inception somehow didn’t net him a Best Director nomination, particularly after many felt he should have received that recognition for The Dark Knight two years ago. We know, it’s hard to feel too bad for a fabulously successful studio director; he can always take solace in his rave reviews, piles of money, and the knowledge that he gets to spend several months with a cat-suited Anne Hathaway. But it’s gotta sting just a little.

So take heart, Christopher Nolan: you certainly won’t be the first great filmmaker to get the cold shoulder from the folks at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And keep in mind that, while these folks never won, Best Director Oscars sit in the homes of Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford (pattern?), Robert Zemeckis, James L. Brooks, and James Cameron. Perspective given? Good. Join us, won’t you, for a look back at some of the fine filmmakers who never won the Best Director honor.

Charles Chaplin

It’s been a long-standing tradition that comedy films and their makers never get the proper respect from the Academy (see next entry), but it seems especially egregious that Chaplin, perhaps our most iconic actor/director, was never honored — or even nominated for — Best Director. He won Honorary Awards in 1929 and 1972, and took home an Oscar for Best Score in 1973 (for the two decades-delayed American release of his 1952 film Limelight), but those had the feel of consolation prizes; he was nominated for writing and acting in The Great Dictator, and penning Monsieur Verdoux, and won none of them. Despite all of this, Chaplin was one of our most innovative, effective, and heartbreaking filmmakers. Anyone who says otherwise should be directed to the above scene, the beautiful and moving conclusion to his 1931 masterpiece City Lights.

Buster Keaton

Chaplin’s contemporary Joseph Francis “Buster” Keaton was likewise never nominated for Best Director (or anything else), though he too received belated recognition with an Honorary Oscar in 1960. Third in popularity to Chaplin and Harold Lloyd in their day, Keaton is today recognized as not only a comic genius, but an inventive and skilled director. Roger Ebert calls Keaton’s masterpiece The General (above) “an epic of silent comedy” and says of its director: “Today I look at Keaton’s works more often than any other silent films. They have such a graceful perfection, such a meshing of story, character and episode, that they unfold like music.”

Alfred Hitchcock

Few directors were more influential or more recognizable than Alfred Hitchcock, then or now. But although he was nominated five times — for Rebecca, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rear Window, and Psycho (above) — he never took home the Best Director prize. Maybe it was because he was looked down on as a genre director; maybe his pictures’ monstrous box office hauls were considered validation enough. Whatever the reason, the fact that he lost the prize year after year remains a black eye on the Academy’s credibility — one scarcely erased by his 1968 Thalberg Award.

Orson Welles

Orson Welles, director of what is generally considered the finest film ever made, was nominated for Best Director exactly once — for that film, Citizen Kane (above). He lost to John Ford, whose How Green Was My Valley also won Best Picture over Kane. Okay, sure, Ford’s a great director, but he had just won the year before, for The Grapes of Wrath (beating out Hitch, for Rebecca), in addition to his 1936 win for The Informer. Then again, Kane‘s lack of Oscar success was no surprise; his sweetheart deal with RKO Pictures was the object of widespread jealousy and derision, and the film’s poor box office showing (primarily due to its blacklisting by William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon widely acknowledged as its inspiration) was seen as a chance to put the brash young director in his place. Kane won a single Oscar that night, for Best Screenplay — which Welles shared with Herman J. Mankiewicz, an old-school Hollywood scribe who Academy voters had no qualms with recognizing. Welles was the outsider, and stayed that way through his career. Citizen Kane was his only Best Director nomination, in spite of his stellar work on The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil, and Chimes at Midnight. He did, at long last, receive an Honorary Award (noticing a pattern?) in 1970.

Howard Hawks

Howard Hawks was one of Hollywood’s most skilled, prolific, and versatile filmmakers. He made screwball comedies (like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, above), classic Westerns (Rio Bravo, Red River), great musicals (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), dramas (To Have and Have Not), mysteries (The Big Sleep), gangster pictures (the original Scarface), and more, all with a strong hand and inimitable style. And he was nominated exactly one time — for Sergeant York, in 1942 (he also lost to John Ford and How Green is My Valley. Tough year!). Perhaps his other pictures were too “lightweight” (read: entertaining) for the big show, but if his contemporary Jack Ford could win four, surely Hawks should have won at least one. (No prize for guessing what he finally did get: an Honorary Oscar, in 1974.)

Robert Altman

Hollywood’s reigning iconoclast was nominated five times for Best Director — for M*A*S*H (above), Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park — which is about five times shy by our count (he wasn’t nominated for McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, California Split, or Cookie’s Fortune). Unsurprisingly, he never won. (In 2002, he lost to Ron Howard, for A Beautiful Mind. Chew on that for a while.) He — let’s all recite it together now — won the Honorary Award in 2005 (“for a career that has repeatedly reinvented the art form and inspired filmmakers and audiences alike”), but c’mon. The guy changed the way we look at and listen to movies, and that’s all he got? The Hollywood equivalent to the “my parents went to the Bahamas and all I got was this lousy T-shirt” shirt?

Sam Peckinpah

Then again, we probably shouldn’t be too critical of the Honorary Oscar — legendary outlaw filmmaker Sam Peckinpah never got one. He also never got a single nomination for direction; his best film, The Wild Bunch, got him a Best Screenplay nom (it lost to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), and that is the sum total of his Academy Award recognition. No love for Straw Dogs, Major Dundee, or Ride the High Country; Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was presumably more than a long-shot. It’s a shame. Uneven though his filmography may be, Peckinpah redefined onscreen violence and themes of masculinity as few filmmakers had before (or since).

John Cassavetes

The godfather of American independent cinema was nominated three times — once for Best Director (A Woman Under the Influence, above), once for Best Original Screenplay (Faces), and once for Best Supporting Actor (The Dirty Dozen) — and didn’t win any of them. But few directors were as influential to today’s indie filmmakers; his raw, rough-edged, intimate pictures utilized handheld photography and a homemade aesthetic to reframe the male-female dynamic onscreen. Cassavetes died in 1989. His last self-generated project, Love Streams, was ignored by the Academy five years earlier.

Stanley Kubrick

Kubrick won only one Oscar, for the Visual Effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey (above). He wasn’t nominated for that film’s direction — nor was it nominated for Best Picture. (In all fairness, ya know, there was Oliver! ) The notorious perfectionist was only nominated for Best Director three times — for Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon — and was nominated as producer and writer for those films as well, coming up empty-handed on all fronts. Way to go, Oscar.

Sidney Lumet

Maybe it’s just that he’s such a New York guy, he couldn’t get respect from those LA creeps. But that’s still not explanation enough for how, in spite of four nominations (for 12 Angry Men , Dog Day Afternoon , Network , and The Verdict ), the great Sidney Lumet never took home an Oscar until he got his Honorary Award in 2004. And it sure doesn’t explain how Serpico (above), one of his best films — and one of the best films of the 1970s — didn’t even get a nomination for Best Director (or Best Picture, for that matter). But Lumet got the last laugh: he warned, on accepting his honorary award, that he was hardly done making movies, and 2007 effort Before the Devil Knows Your Dead was a tense, snappy dramatic thriller that put most younger filmmakers to shame. (He didn’t get nominated for that one, either.)

Brian DePalma

Sure, he’s a genre filmmaker. But so was Hitchcock (his biggest, and most obvious, influence). And there are few who do genre filmmaking with as much style and pizazz as DePalma, whose filmography includes such modern classics as Carrie , Blow Out , Dressed to Kill , Scarface , and The Untouchables . Yet, he’s never been nominated — not even for his most seemingly Oscar-friendly movie, the searing drama Casualties of War (above), which his longtime champion Pauline Kael called “the culmination of his best work.”

David Lynch

He’s one of our most uncompromising and original film artists, so yes, of course David Lynch has never won the Academy Award — though he’s been nominated for Best Director three times, for Blue Velvet (above), Mulholland Dr. , and The Elephant Man (he also picked up a Best Screenplay nomination for the latter). Due respect to Oliver Stone, who won Best Director in 1987 for Platoon , but Lynch kinda got robbed. Now that he seems more interested in making techno music and coffee, who knows if he’ll ever make another film quite as innovative and unexpected as Blue Velvet. (While you’re mulling that over, please enjoy some things you might not have known about the auteur.)

Spike Lee

Spike Lee’s candor and often-controversial opinions haven’t made him too many friends in Hollywood. Again, he’s a quintessential New York director who has always operated somewhat outside the industry. As such, he’s never been nominated for Best Director — not for his 1989 masterpiece Do The Right Thing (also snubbed for Best Picture), his 1992 biographical epic Malcolm X (above), or his 2002 post-9/11 drama 25th Hour (which topped countless “best of the decade” lists). He’s been nominated twice: once for Best Screenplay (for Do The Right Thing), once for Best Documentary (for his searing 4 Little Girls). It’s a shame: his filmography has some clunkers, but when he’s on, he’s one of our most distinctive and unique voices.

Quentin Tarantino

No single figure emboldened more would-be filmmakers than Quentin Tarantino, the video-store-geek-turned-rock-star-director who brought non-linear storytelling, exploitation movie references, and pop-culture obsession into mainstream cinema in the mid-1990s. But his biggest Oscar hit to date, 1994’s Pulp Fiction, only won him honors for Best Original Screenplay; in the Best Director and Best Picture categories, it fell to the Forrest Gump juggernaut. (If we only knew then, right?) He was nominated again last year, for Inglourious Basterds, but boy does it seem like the Academy missed the boat in ’94. When you put Tarantino’s subsequent filmography next to Gump director Robert Zemeckis’s, well, it speaks volumes about the fallibility of Oscar’s judgment.

So what do you think? What other directors have unfairly gotten the shaft?