There’s something very familiar about the Oscar directors’ race this year. Yep, just two years after Clint Eastwood nabbed the trophy for “Million Dollar Baby” and Martin Scorsese went home empty handed for the umpteenth time, it’s another Eastwood-Scorsese faceoff.
So, once again, what everyone will be wondering as the envelope is ripped open on Feb. 25 is: Will Scorsese finally win an Oscar? Or will Academy darling Eastwood — who has won the director trophy twice before (“Unforgiven” was his first) — take another trip to the podium?
This time, for Scorsese, the project isn’t something he’s lived with for years, unlike his previous nominated films — “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator.” Hong Kong crime-thriller remake “The Departed” was a director-for-hire gig, and Scorsese admits he was hooked on page 2 of the script. “One of the things that hit me was that the depiction of the characters and their attitudes toward the world in which they live was so uncompromising,” the helmer says. “That’s really what got me interested in directing the movie.”
Eastwood’s nomination comes for a film that was an extension of another project. “Letters From Iwo Jima” grew out of the helmer’s desire to tell the other side of the story of his “Flags of Our Fathers.” “I started to get to thinking about both of these movies as a sort of a tribute to the common man,” says Eastwood. “It came to be not so much about who won or lost the war, it came to be about the people who fought it and, (when) fate put them in their position, how they acted.”
Given their Oscar pedigree, Scorsese and Eastwood might be considered the category’s front-runners. But, of course, there are three other worthy helmers contending in the helmer race.
There’s Cannes director prize winner Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who has won praise for managing to mount “Babel” in multiple languages and countries. “I wanted to explore the themes of miscommunication and also the idea that anything you do can create ripples all over the world,” the helmer says of his mosaic. “I wanted to create a world where everything is thematically and emotionally connected.”
The field also includes two British helmers.
Paul Greengrass’ nomination for “United 93” — the only film up for director that’s not also nommed for picture — points to the Acad’s recognition of what it took to present the story surrounding the painfully real 9/11 events while delivering a naturalistic, moving drama. “People say it looks very improvised and unstructured, but it doesn’t happen just because you turn up,” Greengrass explains. “You get that by planning, by understanding, before the start, every beat of the story.”
Also working with a story based on real life, Stephen Frears took on a very British one with “The Queen,” about the monarchy in the days following Princess Diana’s death. For Frears, it was all about getting the tone right. “If you’re making a film about real people, you tend to behave more responsibly,” he says. “It’s important to avoid caricature, but I hired good actors. The danger lies in the jokes that stray toward stereotype — that’s where you get into trouble.”
Of this year’s director contenders, Martin Scorsese has been most nominated in the category with six bids: for 1980’s “Raging Bull,” 1988’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” 1990’s “GoodFellas,” 2002’s “Gangs of New York,” 2004’s “The Aviator” and his current “The Departed.” He also was up for adapted screenplay on “GoodFellas” and 1993’s “The Age of Innocence,” for a total of eight nominations. He has never won the Oscar.
Behind him is Clint Eastwood, with four directing noms: for 1992’s “Unforgiven,” 2003’s “Mystic River,” 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby” and now “Letters From Iwo Jima.” He won the Oscar for directing “Unforgiven” and “Baby” and, as producer on those films, also won the picture trophy twice. He received the honorary Thalberg kudo in 1995, and additional nominations for picture on “River” and actor on “Unforgiven” as well as “Baby.”
This will be the second time Eastwood and Scorsese face each other in the category. British helmer Stephen Frears also competed against Scorsese back in 1990 when he was nominated for “The Grifters” (Kevin Costner won for “Dances With Wolves”). Frears’ bid for “The Queen” this year is his second Oscar nomination.
And two make their first appearance as helmer nominees at the big show this year: Brit Paul Greengrass for “United 93” and Mexico’s Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for “Babel.” (Inarritu was previously cited as part of the foreign-language film nomination for 2000’s “Amores perros.”)