Christopher Nolan and the Oscars’ Strained Relationship with Popular Directors

Christopher Nolan lost his first Best Director nod at the Oscars. We examine his place among populist auteurs who make the Academy wary.

Tom Hardy before burning plane in Dunkirk
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

The 90th Annual Academy Awards are over, and things certainly seemed to change a bit during this Oscars season. With fresh voices dominating the most competitive portions of the race, the traditional Hollywood guard made way for new talent, such as Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele. Even a genre filmmaker like Guillermo del Toro took home Best Picture and Best Director. Still, the more things change, the more they historically seem to stay the same, which includes Christopher Nolan receiving his first Oscar nomination for Best Director.

The enigmatic auteur who has helmed some of the most technically dazzling and ponderous crowd-pleasers of his day, from turning Batman movies into art to trying to challenge Stanley Kubrick for grandeur amongst the stars, has finally received a nomination for Best Director with Dunkirk. Technically Nolan’s third Oscar nod—he was previously nominated for his screenwriting duties on Memento and Inception—it is another sign that Academy attitudes are changing… but only marginally so.

Because come Oscar Sunday, Nolan spent the evening like he had the whole awards season: applauding del Toro as he picked up Best Director for The Shape of Water. While this is a true achievement for del Toro, whose mastery has gone overlooked for decades, it still underscores one of Oscar’s most familiar and unfortunate habits: The Academy generally eschews populist auteurs.

To be fair, a number of popular movies have won major Oscars. It was even commonplace before Harvey Weinstein redefined what an “Oscar film” was, beginning around 1999. Be that as it may, the Academy has always had an aloof relationship with filmmakers with high-minded ambitions that still nonetheless enjoyed marrying them to commercial, audience-friendly entertainment. The ability to be both, the artist and the showman, is a rare talent, and those that have done so to the level of success Nolan has in the last 13 years keeps the list of filmmakers, at least in this writer’s mind, fairly short. And yet, in each case, the Academy at differing points in history, and through multiple generations, has resisted any filmmaker who would try to make “popcorn” into something substantial.

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In the case of Nolan, it is remarkable again that it took Dunkirk—a World War II epic about a battle most Americans were oblivious of—being experimental in its use of narrative exposition, while still earning over $500 million in an otherwise grim summer, to finally get the filmmaker a Best Director nod. It is arguable he’s been “due” since he went overlooked for Memento in 2001. Yet that truly experimental neo noir that told a knotty crime story in reverse was obviously never going to be the Academy’s cup of tea, and in retrospect seemed destined for its cult status among cinephiles and college students.

But as the filmmaker graduated to big budget studio fare in the years that followed, a funny thing happened—Nolan made blockbuster entertainment that actually challenged audiences, excited critics, and usually wound up nearly everywhere in the “best of” conversations at the end of the year. Well, everywhere except the Oscars. The Dark Knight, for example, was Nolan’s second Batman film that caught fire in the public imagination in a way few “serious” political dramas have by using well-worn icons of American pop culture—Batman, the Joker, and Two-Face—to explore the uncertainty and anxiety of American life after 9/11 and during the height of the Bush Years’ “War on Terror.” While most superhero movies’ popularity in the past two decades could be seen as a reaction to America dealing with the existential dread of global terrorism, The Dark Knight explored that paranoia head-on and slapped ghoulish pancake makeup atop it.

Heath Ledger received a posthumous Oscar, but despite The Dark Knight being recognized as one of the year’s best by many of the filmmaking guilds who comprise the Academy—the PGA, the DGA, the WGA, and SAG—it somehow lost a Best Picture nomination to Stephen Daldry’s coolly received The Reader (which was also produced by Harvey Weinstein). Two years later, Nolan again captured the zeitgeist with an original film un-besmirched by superhero drag in Inception. It was nominated for Best Picture and Original Screenplay, yet its Best Picture nomination was viewed largely as an “also-ran” of the bottom five created in that category, coincidentally, as a result of The Dark Knight’s snubbing. Nolan also did not receive a nomination for masterminding one of the most influential films of the decade that followed. He would be similarly shutout time and again as the years passed.

It’s a frustrating narrative, and a familiar one, given that we have seen it throughout movie history. For when the rare director, who is as much a star to audiences as his actors, can still be artful, it is usually viewed as artifice or as bourgeois pretensions by Academy voters. It’s for that reason filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick never won a competitive Oscar, while it took nearly 20 years until Steven Spielberg was accepted as “one of ours” after he made the right kind of box office hit.

If you could name only one director whose public image overshadowed his artistic brilliance in the 20th century, it would be hard to not simply utter, “Hitch.” The British filmmaker who came to Hollywood to direct a Best Picture winner in 1940’s Rebecca was nevertheless viewed as a secondary contributor by the Academy in that film’s production, and never received a Best Picture (much less Best Director) win again during the following 25 years he spent making some of the most enduring films in the Hollywood canon.

Rebecca itself is a classic of the gothic horror vein, but not necessarily one of most people’s favorite Hitchcock films, nor does it have many of his telltale flourishes, save for when Judith Anderson’s icy Mrs. Danvers is haunting the frame. Still, while Hitch is responsible for heightening the best element of the film, in the industry he was seen as the portly Englishman who was a director-for-hire for David O. Selznick. When the studio system was at its zenith, and producers viewed themselves as the true artists, no name loomed larger than Selznick, the former MGM wunderkind who brought the most successful film of all-time, Gone with the Wind, to the screen.

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Hitchcock and Selznick reportedly clashed over details, with Hitch often overriding Selznick’s decrees about following the movie’s source material novel to the letter. After production ended, Selznick cut Hitch out of editing the picture in post and is alleged to have reshot much of the film himself to make it more like the prestigious affair he envisioned. So when Rebecca won Best Picture at 1941’s Academy Awards, it was viewed as Selznick’s victory, not Hitchcock’s. It is also why the director chose to begin editing his movies “in-camera” (as in shooting his pictures in such a way that they could only be arranged in a single order).

In the years that followed, Hitchcock directed some of the finest American films of all-time, including Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, North by Northwest, the vastly underrated Rope, Rear Window, Vertigo, and Psycho. His corpulent silhouette also became synonymous to viewers with his name as the “Master of Suspense.” With a publicist’s instincts, the filmmaker usually inserted himself into his own movies for noticeable cameos, would appear in the trailers for his films, sometimes as the only selling point in the case of the mysteriously marketed Psycho and The Birds, and even expanded his brand to lucrative ego-building on television with the anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

For the amount of masterpieces the “Master of Suspense” churned out during this period, he was rarely nominated for Best Director (Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rear Window, and Psycho being the cursory exceptions) and he never won. Generally, the more popular his thrillers were, the more they were viewed as mild diversions by an Academy’s voting populace. In an era when only successful movies won Best Picture and Best Director, the most successful director was eternally shutout. Hitch finally got his Oscar as a noncompetitive lifetime achievement award in 1968.

A more recent filmmaker who is probably a bit closer to our modern sense of directorial star power is Steven Spielberg. One of the most powerful men in Hollywood, Spielberg failing to receive a nomination is now considered an upset, such as the case with 2017’s The Post being denied Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actor nominations. However, the modern image of Spielberg only came after nearly two decades of intense skepticism at the height of his mainstream popularity.

Cutting his teeth during what is arguably the strongest era of Hollywood moviemaking, Spielberg came of professional age in the 1970s when the studio system had collapsed. With the industry in disarray, a new generation of filmmakers rewrote what American cinema could be. But whereas many of the films from his peers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Brian De Palma wallowed in cynicism and downbeat naturalism in the decade of Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War, Spielberg was always an entertainer from the get-go. His first film, a TV movie called Duel, was so masterfully done, it was compared to Hitchcock and received a theatrical release. And his second actual theatrical film was the first modern blockbuster: Jaws.

In 1975, Jaws changed the rules on summer movie entertainment and combined its decade’s focus on tightly written and acted characters with an almost swashbuckling sense of adventure and suspense. Essentially a monster movie where audiences couldn’t see the monster for most of the runtime (even if this was due to a stroke of production misfortune), Jaws’ artistry and crowd-pleasing impulses made it one of the defining films of its generation, as well as a shoe-in for a Best Picture nomination. It didn’t win, of course, but it was an honor just to be nominated.

However, this is an honor that Spielberg did not share. Even though he was so certain he’d receive an Oscar nomination that he had himself filmed on the morning the Oscar nominees were announced, all he ended up preserving was his crushing disappointment. He would go on to at least be nominated for three more cultural touchstones over the next 10 years—but he never won once. He earned nods for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T., but each of them were treated almost as begrudging concessions to his popularity, as opposed to his talent.

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When he attempted to branch out into more “adult fare” in the late 1980s with The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, he was met with some skepticism and suspicion (Purple did earn a Best Picture nod while being shutout of the Best Director category). And anything that was extraordinarily popular wound up losing to films like Robert Redford’s mostly forgotten Ordinary People. Spielberg eventually won his well-deserved Oscar for Schindler’s List during the ceremony in 1994. Almost 20 years after he had to sit and just clap for Jaws. Schindler’s List deserved its acclaim many times over as perhaps the most important narrative film ever made about the Holocaust, and one that crystallized the horrors of genocide for the next generation. Yet only by tackling the material in such an unflinching manner did Spielberg receive credit for talent that was there in Raiders and Close Encounters, and which was always behind the showman of the 1980s who, like Hitch before him, produced popular escapism for all-ages at Amblin Entertainment.

The filmmaker was invited “into the club,” but only so far. Again, his other harrowing World War II masterpiece, Saving Private Ryan, won him a second Best Director Oscar but lost him Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love, a pleasant but lightweight costume dramedy that’s greatest feat was allowing Harvey Weinstein to perfect the modern Oscar campaign. One that, for the record, has shut out Christopher Nolan multiple times since then.

For like Spielberg before Schindler’s List, or Hitchcock after Rebecca, or other filmmakers who made challenging, cinema defining phenomena that never ever even won a lifetime achievement award—say, Stanley Kubrick—Nolan is a brand unto himself. Despite his often conservative and understated demeanor, he has carefully curated an image where just his name can sell an original, IP-free (and character development and exposition-free) experimental war film in the heat of summer. That is worthy of a nomination, but it never seems enough to be considered a real contender by the Academy, past, future, or present.