Not every filmmaker is lucky enough to choose exactly the project destined to bring him or her award-season recognition. This year’s five director nominees almost missed their chance for Oscar glory. Documents secretly procured by Variety testify to the less-than-stellar vehicles that got away.
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Kate Winslet puts the “senior” in senior year as love-starved drama teacher Ms. Darbus, whose long-dormant desires are brought out in this threequel from the director of “The Hours.” Overaged siren sets her sights on starry-eyed basketball star and thesp Troy (Zac Efron), and they carry on a hot and heavy affair between rehearsals for the school play “Tea and Sympathy.” She shows him the finer points of eyeliner and rouge, but the May/December romance hits a snag when he discovers she’s musically illiterate: She can’t read a note. Regretfully, Darbus sends him on his way with a tender “When you sing of this — and you will — be kind.” He forgoes college to join a “La Cage aux Folles” Vegas drag show. For the big finale, Winslet and the entire cast share a bathtub au naturel for one last chorus of “We’re All in This Together.”
Directed by Ron Howard
The “Cinderella Man” director invests another Cinderella story with social significance, delicately charting the friendship of foxy Cristabel (Paris Hilton) and ugly duckling June (Christine Lakin) as they learn about dating, guys and arcane sexual positions. These scenes are intercut with meetings 40 years later between older Cristabel (Michael Sheen) and June (Frank Langella), who debate the actions, motivations and meaning of that faraway summer, and the line “Did you do any fornicating this weekend?” resonates across the decades. No one will be admitted during Mr. Langella’s controversial bikini wax scene.
Directed by Danny Boyle
The pulse-racing, mind-pounding fable of an undereducated, unsophisticated dawg (Josh Brolin) who aspires to the biggest prize in all the land. On TV quizshows with the likes of Chris Matthews and Katie Couric, he expects questions far beyond his knowledge base. But in a coincidence of Dickensian proportions, everything he’s asked relates directly to his experiences: “When was Prohibition repealed?” “What’s the price of a barrel of crude on the current market?” “How many coeds does it take to change a light bulb?” Though suspected of cheating to win, he begins a checkered reign marked by a slow response to tsunami victims, infuriating East Asia when he’s heard to exclaim, “You’re doing a great job, Brownie.” His administration comes under more fire for employing the controversial “trainspotting” interrogation technique, in which terror suspects are plunged face-first into toilets. Still, he wins the girl of his dreams (Freida Pinto), and as they leave office, a jubilant crowd does a victory dance in the Washington, D.C., Amtrak station.
Directed by David Fincher
Adopting a conceit from F. Scott Fitzgerald and a theme song (“If I Could Turn Back Time”) from Cher, the man behind “Se7en” and “Fight Club” goes a kinder, gentler route. The iconic “First Blood” warrior (Sylvester Stallone) is first seen wrinkled, leathery and bloated in 1944, dodging bullets while tottering around Omaha Beach. Along comes the invasion of Korea in 1951, and though he’s still “Cop Land” pudgy, he’s magically become unlined and mulleted. A 1958 U2 flight sees him in “Cliffhanger” trim, and by the time he joins the Special Forces in ‘Nam, he seems as vital as he looked in “Rhinestone” and “Rocky III.” (Mr. T. returns in a cameo appearance as Clubber Lang, whose severed head is found in a hatbox.) In the wake of the Desert Storm victory, Rambo celebrates like “Rocky” on the Philadelphia steps, and while taking out Saddam, he has become a young, taut Lord of Flatbush. In a final time twist, the audience leaves feeling 20 years older.
Directed by Gus Van Sant
The helmer of “Paranoid Park” and “Good Will Hunting” brings his patented style of disaffection and anomie to the saga of anime perennial Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch), described with Churchillian echoes as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside spandex.” Forsaking cartoon colors for a muted palette of beige and gray, Van Sant shows the ultimate loner — accompanied in his own private Idaho only by devoted mechanic Sparky (James Franco) — circling the track endlessly in hollow emptiness. One day, Sparky challenges him to step up and make a difference in the racing world. “I am here to recruit you!” Racer tells a cheering audience, but his career is tragically cut short when his narcolepsy kicks in and he hits a wall. Dazed, he hears Sparky whispering in order to pull him back from eternity: “It’s not your fault! It’s not your fault! It’s not your fault!”