When I initially heard about The Post, my reaction was to wonder how the Academy was going to square their obvious incapability of just not nominating Meryl Streep for things with their incapability of nominating not just Steven Spielberg himself but his movies. If she wins, she will become not only the second person with four acting Oscars (though all of Katharine Hepburn’s were in lead categories!) but the third person to win an acting Oscar for a Steven Spielberg movie. The other two have won theirs within the last five years.
When you are the subject of one of the most famous snubs in Oscar history, I would imagine it’s hard not to take it personally. In 1985, The Color Purple was nominated for eleven Oscars. Technically, Spielberg was up for one of those, as he’s been producing his own movies since E.T. (for which he did receive his first of nine Best Picture nominations), but all anyone could talk about was that he was passed over for Best Director. Three of the film’s actresses received acting nominations, and while it was technically only the feature debut of one of them—Oprah Winfrey—it might as well have been Whoopi Goldberg’s. While acting is mostly about the person acting, I do believe that getting three nominations for it, including two for essentially their first movie, says things about the director.
This may have been why he got the Thalberg the next year—guilt. Because of course, not only did The Color Purple not get nominated for Best Director, it didn’t win anything. The fact that it was also a movie with only a small handful of white people in it Did Not Help; Oscars So White is not exactly a new issue. And the only way the Academy felt it could show remorse was to give Spielberg its lifetime achievement award for producers. Which, if you think about it, still kind of misses the point even if Spielberg hadn’t been forty at the time and with presumably quite a lot more lifetime ahead in which to achieve things.
It would be seven years before his next Oscar nomination. I grant you that the only strong contender in those years would be Empire of the Sun, which was indeed nominated for six Oscars. But neither Picture nor Director, and it lost all of them. Understandable losses—it lost in all six categories to the juggernaut of The Last Emperor—but still. In 1993, the juggernaut would be Schindler’s List, which frankly feels like the sort of movie the Academy literally could not ignore, being both a popular success and about an Important Subject. It was itself nominated for twelve Oscars, giving Spielberg both his first Directing win and his first Best Picture win on its way to a total of seven.
But . . . okay. Let’s not argue Tom Hanks, here, because Philadelphia was similarly Academy-targeted in a lot of ways, and while I can name several movies for which he deserves more notice (including Spielberg executive-produced Joe Vs. The Volcano, which was not even on the Academy’s radar), Philadelphia. But I’m not sure I can be convinced that Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive was a better performance than Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth. Or even unnominated Sir Ben Kingsley as Itzhak Stern.
In general, it feels as though not only is Spielberg himself routinely ignored—you’ll note the Academy’s solution this year was “Best Actress and Best Picture and ignore the rest”—his performers are as well. In a way, the most surprising win for a Spielberg movie is Mark Rylance’s. His was the second win for a Spielberg role. While Bridge of Spies got nominated for a hefty slate, his was the only win. And frankly, if the Academy had been going for the “old trouper who deserves a win” trope, you’d think they would have gone for Stallone, who went literally my entire lifetime between nominations at that point, having gotten two for Rocky in 1976 and then nothing since, only to be nominated for its distant sequel.
Okay. I grant you that Sir Alfred Hitchcock did worse. He was nominated five times and only got the Thalberg. And I consider the failure to nominate Psycho for Best Picture one of the greatest mistakes in Academy history, and not just because I don’t like The Apartment. (Frankly, I could replace the entire slate with better movies.) And Anthony Perkins should have been nominated over winner Burt Lancaster. The slate of people nominated for Hitchcock films isn’t great, either.
But there are a few differences, and not just because, at Spielberg’s age, Hitchcock’s notable rate of production had significantly fallen off, as had his quality. There’s also the fact that Hitchcock never left his genre work behind—and got more credit for it in many ways than Spielberg did. Jurassic Park did win all three technical awards, I grant you, but crucially, that’s all it was nominated for. Yes, all right, that means that the only category in which it was competing with Schindler’s List was Sound, but think about the fact that it also means that Spielberg made Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park in the same year! The only Spielberg genre film that has done well is Raiders of the Lost Ark; even Close Encounters of the Third Kind only won for Cinematography, with a special award for its sound effects editing. And even there, it lost a lot of things to Star Wars.
Another major difference, I think, is that Spielberg is well known for working with good people. When you think Hitchcock, you don’t think about the quality of his crew. Cast, yes, and your odds of being nominated for acting in either man’s films weren’t great, I grant you. But one of the first names that springs to mind for me when I hear the name “Steven Spielberg” is “John Williams.” And Williams is one of the most-nominated people in Academy history, up there with Walt Disney—and unlike Walt, Williams actually personally did the work for all of his. Indeed, three of his five wins are for iconic scores for Spielberg movies. He won for Jaws, E.T., and Schindler’s List.
And that’s it. I mean, Fiddler on the Roof (for adaptation) and Star Wars, but you know what I mean. And while the nominations haven’t all been for classics, neither have some of the movies he’s lost to. It almost starts to feel, from a vague browsing, as though the Spielberg Effect follows people even when they’re not working with him; could that be why Tom Hanks lost for Saving Private Ryan and has only been nominated once since then?
Frank Capra only won three Oscars, out of six nominations, and all in the ’30s, and that may seem like a better comparison. But for one thing, Capra’s creative life as a director was shorter, especially, cruel as it is to say, as a good director. Second, like Hitchcock, most of his work as a producer was uncredited—heck, the Oscar for It Happened One Night went to “Columbia.” And third, you stood a considerably better chance of being nominated in one of the lesser number of categories for which those films were eligible, and he’d already beaten Spielberg’s total of actors who won with a single film.
No, a look at the numbers really does suggest that Steven Spielberg has not been treated fairly by the Academy. And my understanding is that The Post, which I’ve not seen, is not likely to make Spielberg have to find somewhere to put a fourth competitive Oscar. The one thing I will say in response to his famous statement that he hadn’t even touched one before winning for Schindler’s List is that you’d think John Williams would have loaned him one to practice with!
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