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Director

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Remember when … 1973
Maturing talents dominated the directors race in ’73.
George Lucas was still four years away from releasing his magnum opus when he was nominated for the nostalgic 1960s teen pic “American Graffiti.”
With two previous writing noms, Ingmar Bergman earned the first of his three directing noms for “Cries and Whispers.”
Two years before, William Friedkin had won the director race for “The French Connection,” and found his way back into the mix with the now-classic horror pic “The Exorcist.”
Also with a writing nom to his name, Bernardo Bertolucci broke ground in the portrayal of sex with “Last Tango in Paris”; he would not win the category though until 14 years later for “The Last Emperor.”
Having lost out four years prior for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” George Roy Hill won the race via another collaboration with Paul Newman and Robert Redford: “The Sting.”

It was a year of personal pics with directors’ passion projects ruling the roost throughout the year.

As with best picture, two of the earliest contenders were Mel Gibson and Michael Moore. Their projects, “The Passion of the Christ” and “Fahrenheit 9/11,” were front and center in national attention, coming to represent the nation’s deep divide between conservatives and liberals.

Gibson’s “Passion” was much less of a political statement than an expression of his faith, which found a surprisingly responsive audience that was only possible by going the indie route.

Moore’s film became a political lightning rod, giving it intense relevance from its summer release into the fall election campaign. But interest in the film seems to have peaked before the Nov. 2 election.

British maverick Mike Leigh was a tad disappointed that his abortionist drama “Vera Drake” did not become embroiled in America’s culture wars the way Moore’s film did. He maintains the film’s true challenge was “presenting this dilemma” — a working-class woman who performs illegal abortions out of the goodness of her heart — “without being crass and explicit.”

The indie approach heated up the race as fall films — such as Alexander Payne’s “Sideways” — were rolled out to rave reviews. “Sideways” benefited from a bubbly feeling of inclusion and intimacy on the set that Payne admits could have translated to the screen. “This film was by far the most fun. And it comes from the growing relationship between myself and my collaborators,” he says.

Taylor Hackford’s “Ray” earned instant buzz for actor Jamie Foxx, but the film struck enough of a chord with voters to earn an unexpected director and best picture nom, edging out a slew of other late summer and fall contenders.

Among them were Michael Mann, previously nommed for “The Insider,” for his hard-hitting and popular action-drama “Collateral”; Bill Condon for admirably adapting the life of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey to the bigscreen in “Kinsey”; Marc Forster for “Finding Neverland”; and Walter Salles for “The Motorcycle Diaries.”

But it is two year-end releases — one highly anticipated, the other a surprise — that are shaping the final stages of the race.

Every Martin Scorsese picture is eagerly anticipated, and “The Aviator” was no exception. “I was taken by the fact that this is a picture that explores the pioneer spirit of America — there were no limits, they were going into the sky. Plus there was Hughes’ obsession with movies and women,” says Scorsese, who was drawn to the focus on Hughes’ younger years. “I kind of cared about him, but he had fatal flaws — the kind of material I’m usually attracted to.”

The surprise came from Clint Eastwood, hot off a nom last year for “Mystic River.” Few knew what to expect from Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby,” and when it hit with a stripped-down story, strong perfs and a huge plot twist, the film went to the front of the line.

“The trick with filming a good story,” Eastwood says, “is that you have to lose most of the words, find your own way into the story visually, and keep what makes the story great.” He doesn’t believe that there are any fundamental rules to filmmaking, but he sticks to the ones he’s established for himself, and they start with the idea that the camera and camera movements should be invisible, “because we’re trying to feature the story and characters.”

Oscar pedigree

No race has been more heatedly debated than this one, with fans of Martin Scorsese hoping the Academy will finally reward one of America’s critically hailed directors with an Oscar. Scorsese has four previous directing nominations and two writing noms, and with “The Aviator” being his best film in years, the Academy could decide it’s the right time to reward him both for his current and past work with a statuette.

On the other side of the debate is Clint Eastwood, whose reputation as a director has grown steadily through the years. Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” has been heralded as the best of his career. But the track record affects Eastwood’s chances too. Voters who admire the subtlety and skill of “Baby” may still cast their votes for Scorsese having already given Eastwood a director’s trophy for 1992’s “Unforgiven.”

Alexander Payne breaks into the directing nom club having been previously nommed as a writer on “Election.” As a comedy, his film “Sideways” could be seen as being at a disadvantage considering the Academy’s preference for drama. But Payne brings a quality to the film that fits the mold of such well-regarded past Oscar winners as Billy Wilder or even Woody Allen that could give him a leg up.

“Vera Drake’s” Mike Leigh is another director with previous Oscar noms, for “Secrets & Lies” and “Topsy-Turvy.” Leigh brought a powerful subtlety to the story of a 1950s London woman who performs illegal abortions. Controversial topics such as this one have no track record for winning the top prize, but rules are meant to be broken as Peter Jackson and his winning fantasy film of last year can attest to.

Taylor Hackford was, like his “Ray” for best picture, a surprise nomination. Long regarded as a solid though unspectacular director, this is his second trip to the Oscars; the first was a win for short live-action film in 1979. The Academy obviously responded well to “Ray,” having nommed the film in six categories, but for Hackford to take home the trophy amid such tough competition could be difficult.

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