DGA digs its freshman class

Directors tap three first-time nominees

The Directors Guild of America provided the latest twist in this wide-open awards season Tuesday, with nominations that leaned toward major studio pics and highlighted first-timers.

Receiving nods for directorial achievement were Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”), Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”), Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge”), Christopher Nolan (“Memento”) and Ridley Scott (“Black Hawk Down”).

Howard and Scott are three-time nominees, while Jackson, Luhrmann and Nolan are first-timers. Howard won the DGA award in 1995 for “Apollo 13” and was nominated for “Cocoon” in 1985; Scott copped noms for “Thelma and Louise” in 1991 and for “Gladiator” last year.

The helmers’ choices, unveiled by last year’s winner, Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) at DGA headquarters in Hollywood, were mainstream studio releases except for Newmarket’s arthouse hit “Memento.”

The five are an international mix: Howard’s American, Jackson is from New Zealand, Luhrmann from Australia, and Nolan and Scott are British.

Other high-profile indie contenders such as Robert Altman (“Gosford Park”), Todd Field (“In the Bedroom”) and David Lynch (“Mulholland Dr.”) failed to make the cut, although all three have won top helmer honors from critics groups.

That has become typical, with many potential Oscar racers this year finding themselves gaining speed, only to hit a speed bump. Altman, for example, was cited by two major critics groups as well as the AFI Awards and the Golden Globes on Sunday, only to find himself absent from the key Directors Guild citations.

Lee said the three first-time noms reflected the influence of younger members of the DGA, but would not speculate on the winner. “It’s totally a horse race,” he added.

The DGA noms are seen as a bellwether to Oscar, and there is a close correlation, despite the difference in voters. Oscar noms are made by only 364 members of the Academy’s directors’ branch. In contrast, DGA noms are selected by the Guild’s 12,400 members. In addition to feature directors, DGA members include TV helmers, associate directors, assistant directors, stage managers and unit production managers.

DGA winners usually gone on to win the Oscar although last year, the Guild split with the Academy as Lee won the DGA race while the Oscar went to Steven Soderbergh for “Traffic.” The other DGA-Oscar divergences: In 1968, Anthony Harvey won for “The Lion in Winter” but Carol Reed won the Academy Award for “Oliver!”; in 1972, Francis Ford Coppola won the DGA for “The Godfather,” but Bob Fosse won the Oscar for “Cabaret”; 1985, Steven Spielberg won the DGA for “The Color Purple,” but Sydney Pollack won the Oscar for “Out of Africa”; and in 1995, Howard won the DGA for “Apollo 13” but Mel Gibson won the Oscar for “Braveheart.”

Howard told Daily Variety that DGA members probably responded to Universal/DreamWorks’ (Imagine Ent.) “A Beautiful Mind” due to the filmmaking challenges it represented.

“Even though it’s a cliche, the nomination is incredibly gratifying because it’s your peers,” Howard said. “For me, it was the most visually demanding because of trying to personalize John Forbes Nash’s journey of the mind from genius to madness to recovery. That required a lot of thought and lost sleep.”

Jackson, speaking from New Zealand, said the key to the success of New Line’s “Rings” stemmed from its emotional authenticity. “We tried to take the genre and give it a strong emotional element that came first and foremost rather than the special effects,” he added. “I think that helped transcend the genre, because fantasy films are usually left out at awards time.”

Luhrmann said the nom was “by far the most meaningful” recognition he has received thus far for the Fox pic. “Directors truly know what directing is, that it’s not just moving traffic around,” he added. “They understand what a long journey it is, to carry out a notion and see it through.”

Speaking from Madrid, where he was promoting Sony/Revolution’s “Black Hawk Down,” Scott called the announcement “a great surprise” and speculated DGA members had responded to the complexities involved in portraying issues such as intervention and heroism. “It was a lot of tricky work,” he added. “The conventions of the three-act drama couldn’t really be applied.”

The DGA winner will be announced March 9 at the Century Plaza Hotel.

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